At the tender age of seven, I opened a fortune cookie that read, ‘You will marry young and have many children…’
“No duh…” I thought.
I had already internalized the unspoken expectation in our household. With an Italian-American father who’d been raised Catholic (and therefore possessed no concept of birth control,) and a mother whose family were largely Mormon, procreation was right up there with breathing oxygen or walking upright in terms of things we four kids were expected to do.
So it was as much a surprise to me as anyone when I learned I would not be fulfilling the fortune I’d received that warm June night at the Golden Pagoda in Chinatown. For the majority of my childhood, the word gay rolled off our tongues as freely as cool or bitchen. But it meant precisely the opposite. Anything bad, unappealing, negative, undesirable, or simply un-cool was deemed ‘gay.’ One would say, of anything from a puka shell necklace to a Barry Manilow song, ‘that is sooooooo gay.’ Without irony, mind you, in the case of Barry Manilow. I remember the precise moment in the summer of 1980, I realized the word applied to me.
The day started out uneventfully enough. My brother Tony and I made our daily trek through the sun-blistered alleyway adjacent to our property, to Verdugo Park public swimming pool. During the dog days of summer in the San Fernando Valley, swimming in the urine of the masses was preferable to planting ourselves for hours on end before the one musty swamp cooler that was meant to cool our entire house. And so it was that we would pad down that alley, the soles of our bare feet so blistered from the hot, buckled asphalt that they’d cultivated ‘pads.’
Tony was a year older than I. A year and four months to be exact. As children few could tell us apart, with our generic auburn bowl cuts. But now the bowl cuts had grown into distinguishable trademarks. Tony’s shaggy locks emulated the stoners he so looked up to in his new Jr. High school milieu, and my closer-cropped feathered locks communicated pending pubescence. Despite the chasm in our development (the world of difference between elementary school and Jr. High,) we’d remained inseparable. Often we’d be joined by neighborhood friends en route to the public pool. Today it was Robert Hatchford, or ‘Slobert’ as we’d named him, who called after us when we’d reached the halfway mark.
“Wait up!!” Slobert panted, hustling to join us.
My brother and I eyed one another, and for a split second considered ditching him altogether.
“What’s wrong with your pool?” Tony asked him instead. “You pee in it again?”
“Shuttup. It’s being cleaned.”
And then, Robert’s eyes drifted down to our feet with their summer pads. “Don’t you two ever wear shoes?”
“What are you, a wuss? Shoes are for wusses.” My brother answered.
“My Dad says only white trash run around barefoot,” Slobert informed us as we moved on.
I looked at Robert’s own choice of footwear. Sandals. There was nothing wrong with the nylon O.P. swim trunks or even the Hang Ten shirt, but any self-respecting Burbankian on the cusp of graduating to junior high school should have known that Vans slip-ons were the way to go. Instead, Slobert’s white tube socks peeked out from beneath woven leather sandals.
“Well our Dad calls what you’re wearing fag shoes.”
“Shuttup, you gay fag!”
It was true. Our generation did not have a monopoly on derogatory Victorian terms. My father would regularly refer to open shoes, a common sight in the 70’s as fag shoes. Even as a child I somehow understood that it was his City Slicker Chicago upbringing that drove him to refer to hippie footwear in this way, rather than calling sandals what normal people did: Jesus shoes.
“Well, I’d rather save the bottoms of my feet.” Slobert defended himself.
“O.K., but you look like a fag in the mean time...”
“You’re so gay!”
“You’re as queer as a three dollar bill.”
Robert stopped in his tracks. His face was red, cogs turning.
“Shuttup you… you… Gaylord!”
He’d gone and said it. ‘You gay fag,’ however redundant, had been a step up from ‘fag.’ But everyone knew that the royal slur ‘Gaylord’ was whipping out the big guns.
After a moment, Slobert’s temper cooled. We kept walking.
“I heard you can fry an egg on a manhole cover…” he parroted.
My brother and I looked at one another skeptically.
Just then Carlos Santa Maria appeared at the far end of the alley. His friendly swagger was unmistakable, the periodic flip of feathered hair. He was in his early twenties, and lived across from the Hatchfords. His family had moved to Burbank from Venezuela. He was one of five or so siblings, all young adults but still at home. Being of drinking age automatically elevated Carlos to Godlike status in our eyes. The only twenty-somethings we’d glimpsed in our neighborhood Mr. Hatchford had quickly dismissed as hippies, or—even worse—vets, as if they themselves had started the Vietnam War.
Carlos, though his hair was a bit too long, was a fine young man according to Mr. Hatchford. Not like those other wetbacks. The ones who wore jeans to the beach, cut off at the knee. The ones who wore hairnets to train their hair. The ones with the prison tattoos.
“Hey guys,” Carlos greeted us, flashing a broad smile.
As we passed, he issued Tony a high five. And then, turning, a wink in my direction.
When we got to Verdugo Park, the line of suburban delinquents without swimming pools of their own extended well onto the patchy, sun-scorched lawn. It meandered slowly into the dark interior where you paid your buck twenty-five. When we got to the window, I pulled a crumpled bill from the pocket of my corduroy shorts, and dropped a quarter on the metal counter. The teenage girl behind the counter scooped it up with a smile, handed me a paper ticket. She seemed to have been born for the job, like all the other teenagers who worked the pool. Her wavy blonde hair was tinted green from chlorine, and small flecks of missing pigment turned her tan skin pink, like Neapolitan ice cream.
She did not explain the protocol; we all knew the drill. Boys on one side, girls on the other.
I followed my brother, pushed through the metal turnstile into the chlorine-scented cavern that was the boys’ locker room. Once inside, there was another window to visit. The three of us traded our paper tickets for green canvass bags, into which we were to stuff our street clothes, in preparation for the mandatory pre-shower. I peeled off my cotton tank top, stuffed it into the bag, and then hesitated. My brother caught my reticence.
“M-o-d-e-s-t,” he mouthed.
“Shuttup.” I protested, turning away to set my canvas bag on one of several benches. The pre-shower, no matter how many times I’d done it, felt like forced humiliation. Like we were being deloused at Auschwitz. But more than that, my brother had hit the nail on the head. I was modest. Peach fuzz had appeared that summer. And though I had seen the Sex-Ed films at school and had an idea what it meant, I wasn’t quite ready to share it with the world.
I waited until Slobert and my brother had moved on, and stepped under the shower for a second or two. The bare minimum. At least if I looked wet I’d make it past the final window. Slippery now, I squeezed into my nylon swimming trunks with their Velcro pockets, and grabbed the canvass bag stuffed with my street clothes. At the window I passed it to another teenager, where it would be hung with the clothes of strangers.
“Here,” he rasped, handing me a metal clip with a number on it. He was greenish-blonde and tanned like the ticket girl, but donned a mouthful of braces that prevented his lips from closing all the way.
The clip he gave me corresponded with a number on the bag, allowing me to claim it later.
When I caught up with Tony and Slobert they had spread their towels on the cement deck near the far wall. This was often our home base, smack between the screaming elementary schoolers who inhabited the shallow end of the Olympic-sized pool, and the larger-than-life high schoolers who monopolized the deep end. Julie Houston was already there, posing in her one-piece bathing suit and vying for the attention of the high school boys. Also in attendance were Sarah Deason, the girl from up the block who let spiders spin webs on her hands, and Horace and Squint, her neighbors. No one was sure what school the brothers went to, or if they attended school at all. It was rumored that they’d already done time at juvy.
After setting up camp, my brother didn’t waste any time—went straight for the high dive. Not to be left out, Slobert and I followed suit, joining the line of ‘big kids’ that snaked across the hot concrete. In the same way that our elementary school was segregated—a small school yard for grades K-3, and a superior yard for grades 4-6, you knew you had graduated to the big time once you got up the guts to first attempt the high dive. It towered above in the stratosphere, taunting you with its slippery metal stairs and perilous plank. As we waited our turn, we watched a tubby kid around our age negotiate the turquoise fiberglass. His girth flounced as he inched toward its lip, arms suspended daintily. Even from a distance, we could read the terror in his eyes—he may as well have been walking the plank at the point of a gilded sword.
The crowd remained hushed as he readied himself for the moment of truth. And then, with a single now-or-never shift of his formidable weight, he was in midair. He hung suspended there for a fraction of a second, and then gravity got hold of him, compelling him hellward, his enormous mass plummeting through air so thick with anticipation it could be cut with a knife. As he neared the surface of the water the silence was cut with the hiss of air between molars, a synchronized expression of imminent dread from the crowd. He was in the wrong position, with no time to correct. This was not going to end well.
And then we heard it.
S P L A T !
The belly flop heard round the world.
The boy resurfaced to peals of laughter.
He swam sheepishly to the pool’s brick-lined edge, and left with few alternatives, hoisted his corpulent mass onto the hot concrete. When he stood, the crowd saw that a perfect magenta oval, like an eggplant, had seared itself into the blinding white flesh of his belly.
Again, peals of laughter. Louder now.
I looked around for a chicken exit. We had made our way to the base of the ladder; my brother was next in line, and then Slobert. If I ducked out now, I’d never live it down. I’d been braving the high dive since the previous summer, but it never got easier. I had yet to attempt an actual dive; opted instead for the tried-and-true cannonball more often than not.
My brother Tony had perfected not just a dive, but a somersault-dive worthy of the Olympics. When he flawlessly executed his trademark, cheers erupted from the crowd. Slobert frowned, and then his competitive nature kicked in, and he mounted the stairs. I half-hoped he would emerge with an eggplant or other vegetable imprinted on his belly. No such luck. No somersault, but still a perfect dive that cut the water like butter.
He’d been practicing. Shit.
I couldn’t turn back now. And the stakes had been raised. I would have no choice but to attempt an actual dive. There had to be a first time for everything, and it was time to bite the bullet.
You dive all the time from the low-dive. This is no different, I told myself as I mounted the first of two-dozen slippery metal stairs. Halfway up the wind kicked in, exaggerating the goose bumps that had already formed on my skin due to apprehension. I looked down, half wishing there would be an earthquake or other disaster to divert the focus of the crowd. Nothing. Not even a tremor. Their attention was riveted on me, anticipating my every move. Watching me breathe.
Suddenly I was at the top.
I inched onto the fiberglass, testing my traction.
I gazed into the choppy, marbled water so far below, imagining this is what the Earth looked like from space. The tiny blue marble. It was spinning now, a microscopic target no different than a wooden bucket in a three-ring circus. I looked to the lifeguards, one on each side of the pool. They sat on their thrones, elevated above the petty neighborhood children who were just waiting for me to fail. The lifeguards had always seemed so heroic to me—not like the toothy freckled teenagers working the window, but like superheroes. Tanned and toned, clad in fire engine red, bullhorns at the ready should some kid attempt to run on the slippery deck.
The lifeguard perched nearest the high dive was clearly their leader. His golden Christopher Atkins locks were somehow impervious to the swampy greenish effect of the chlorine that affected inferior heads of hair. His shone in the harsh sunlight, refracting its own aura. And his teeth, not to be outdone, gleamed stark white in neat rows against the tanned flesh of a sturdy jaw. He smiled at me across the miles. And then, raising a sinewy forearm, he made a gesture meant for me and me alone. The universal symbol of approval, of brotherhood, of genuine, unconditional support. The thumbs up.
Suddenly the fear dissipated that something would go terribly awry—the image of blood on concrete or tainting the immaculate turquoise water. Without another thought, I sprang from the board. The world whizzed by, cold in my ears, on my skin. In an instant it was over. Before I knew what had happened.
The silence of the world below the water consumed all, the crushing weight of it. The concrete floor was rushing up at me. I arced until perpendicular, orienting myself to the base of the ladder in my periphery. The stabbing pain in my ears gave way to sweet relief as I reached for it. When I yanked myself into the world above, the sound of cheering still hung on the air. Once I had my bearings, I looked up.
The lifeguard was there, framed by the sun, its blinding disc forming a halo. The iconic silhouette was unmistakable—another thumbs up. I’d done well.
I smiled smugly as I plopped spread-eagle onto the hot concrete next to Slobert. I’d brought a towel, but preferred the hot concrete somehow. I liked the way the water formed pools under my skin, squished warm beneath my bathing suit. It felt especially good today as my pelvis subtly rocked. The breeze was exhilarating on my skin, the sensations of warm and cool transporting me, lulling me into state of utter Zen.
I became one with the concrete. Head turned to the side, gazing up into the endless blue. With each blink, patterns floated to the ground, and I traced them with my eyes, trying to find their landing place before they disappeared. The lifeguard was there, lost in atmosphere, amid the torrents of raining molecules. But suddenly he was in crisp focus, obliterating the patterns that were just overcompensation for the field of blue nothingness. The sunlight not only framed him, carving deep core shadows into his chiseled form, but it glanced off, igniting tiny prisms of light that leapt from perfectly configured blonde hairs. I could see this, even at a distance. The richness of his deeply tanned calves absorbed the light, but the blonde hairs harnessed it, intensified it million-fold, sent it out into the world with a golden luster.
I’d always admired the lifeguards, looked up to them literally and figuratively. But gazing up at them, at him, had never been so mesmerizing. And the squishing of the warm water had never felt so…good.
Boner. The word floated into my head, from nowhere. The sex education films we’d been forced to watch at school, preparing us for the decadence of junior high school life, referred to them as ‘erections.’ But for some reason the clinical name evaded me today. It was the word ‘boner’ that I attached to what I was feeling down south. Hard-on. Woody. Stiffie.
Aha. So that’s a boner. Got it.
And then, only seconds later, another word came floating in, even more from left field.
GAY. The word GAY pushed out boner, woodie, stiffie, and hard-on.
So this is GAY. This is what that word means.
We’d thrown it around like no one’s business, to describe a Pee-Chee folder or the institution of disco. But this was no Pee-Chee folder. We’d heard the word uttered in whispered tones, by adults. Ted, the gymnastics coach at the Burbank Arts and Recreation center, and his special friend Jesse, the ballet instructor, were believed to be gay. But it had been an abstract concept. I now knew that they, too, in addition to having earrings in both ears and bushier beards than my ten year-old eyes had yet seen, enjoyed looking at the sun glinting off of lifeguards’ muscular legs.
Suddenly, certain pieces began to fit. I had yet to discover my own penis and the various things that could be done with it behind a locked bathroom door. But come to think of it I’d experienced a similar sensation to today’s when looking through the Time Life book I’d found in our bathroom, stuffed between Reader’s Digest and the Burbank Leader. Sexuality in general was not openly discussed in our household, in an educational sense. Only in the form of off-color jokes, or my father lining up my sister’s fourteen year old friends in order of breast size. My parents were products of their generation, who believed such things were better repressed and then discussed in therapy later. In lieu of the obligatory ‘birds and bees’ conversation, my mother’s way was to discretely slip the Time Life book among the others, hoping our curiosity would be piqued. The small hard cover book, on human sexuality, had endpapers featuring highly rendered illustrations of naked humans—a size-comparison chart of sorts. There was a mommy and a daddy, a teenage boy and girl, and their younger, prepubescent siblings. What this family were doing standing naked in a line-up I cannot say. But what I do know for certain is that I enjoyed looking at the daddy most.
There had been other clues. My father’s lifelong friend Jack had worked for the Heinz company for many years, and regularly brought home merchandising products. Many of them featured the Jolly Green Giant. Whether because of, or in spite of his coloring, I found him oddly attractive. He was super-human, colossal, strong and invincible. And he wore a short loincloth. Most importantly, he seemed kind and good-natured, in a way that my father wasn’t. He seemed downright, well, it’s right there in the name—jolly. I felt safe and protected somehow, sitting in that cold plastic chair molded in the shape of his hand, even while being lacerated by its sharp plastic seams.
When I got home from the public swimming pool, I immediately searched for the Time Life book. Incredibly, it was still there. I discretely double-checked the door lock, and then flipped excitedly to the endpapers.
Yup. It had not been my imagination. The daddy jumped off the paper, other family members fading into oblivion. His broad shoulders were thrown back to display proudly puffed-out pectorals, complete with rendered patterns of thick fur. His hands were planted firmly on his hips, stance wide enough to trap a grisly bear. And his genitals were, well, front and center.
I did not leave the bathroom for twenty minutes.
I’d discovered the greatest thing since sliced bread.
For some reason, that night as I was lying in bed, a thought occurred to me.
I wonder if it’s WRONG…
My discovery hadn’t bothered me in the least. It was new and exciting somehow. And maybe it was the Zen state I’d been in on making the discovery, drunk from the sun and meditative with alpha waves, but it felt right. It felt honest. It felt pure. And I really liked looking at those lifeguards. Not to mention my newfound pastime, which I planned to do plenty more of.
Still, the thought nagged at me. I’d heard it somewhere before—that gay was wrong. I mean—I knew it was bad. Ridiculous. Uncool. But was it morally wrong? What did God think?
I reached for my bedside copy of The Way, a hip 70’s bible geared toward wayward teenagers. The cover featured a large, bubbly psychedelic typeface, inside of which swirled a montage of smiling hippies. I thumbed through the index.
But as hard as I looked, examining every possible cross-reference, there was no mention of ‘gay,’ ‘gayness’ ‘gaydom’ or even homosexuality. I guess even with the dire need to save America’s teenagers from decadence, the publisher dared not speak the word.
I slept very well that night.
The next day, I went to the pool alone. But instead of paying a buck twenty-five to swim in urine-infested water, I went up to the concrete balcony overlooking the Olympic-sized pool. In solitude, I leaned against the railing and took in the scene below. The screaming kids were tiny—flecks of salt and pepper. And the lifeguards, so often heroic and godlike, were stunted, the height of their stations only half that of the balcony. It was hard to see the tiny prisms of light, the halos refracting from their golden locks.
On the way home, I ran into Carlos Santa Maria in the alley. Only now the flip of his feathered hair had new meaning, the smile was a temptation. I’d been acutely aware of the difference between zippered Toughskins, the norm in elementary, and the button fly jeans that the older kids wore. What I hadn’t noticed was the package beneath. As Carlos high-fived me in passing, I imagined I saw a hard-on beneath the taut denim.
Moments later, I was rifling through the scant reading material in our bathroom. To my own surprise, the Time Life Book was already losing its appeal. I would need new smut. Unfortunately, images of the male figure were few and far between in seventies culture. Pre-Calvin Klein, pre-Abercrombie and Fitch, the pickings were slim. Men were not to be objectified or viewed as sensual creatures. They puffed on cigarettes, wearing flannel shirts, staring off at a horizon dotted with saguaros. The quintessence of rugged maleness was the Brawny Paper Towel guy, Mr. Clean, or the Marlboro man. Later the advertising industry would realize its mistake and begin marketing to women and gay men, but for the moment men kept their clothes on in the media.
Except for Jim Palmer, God love him.
After ten minutes of madly rifling through every last magazine in our bathroom, I stumbled across it. There he was, in his tighty whities, furry as a Grizzly bear wrapped in shag carpeting, with one leg propped up on a box. Eureka! The Jockey underwear ad that would sustain a generation of young homos, bound by our shared lust for Mr. Palmer, locked in our bathrooms, wrists sore but giving it one more go-round.
“Where you been?” Slobert Hatchford had appeared beside me on the balcony at Verdugo Rec.
I couldn’t tell him I’d been dividing my time between being locked in the bathroom with Jim Palmer for twenty minutes at a time, and standing on that balcony processing something much, much bigger than myself.
“I been around.” I said instead.
“Well, you should come swim at my house. It’s way better than this piss pool anyway. And they’re done cleaning the filters now.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said, and wandered away.
Scuffling through the alleyway on the way home, I took in the faded asphalt beneath my bare feet. Suddenly it was no longer rich and black, but weathered and lined. Coarse gray pebbles protruded from gritty aggregate, reflecting not the blue sky, but something heavy and gray and ominous. I kicked a pebble. It glanced off the base of a concrete wall and skidded to a stop. I kicked it again. This time it arced, leading me to a conspicuous pile of trash that spewed from an overturned trash barrel. There on top, lay a waterlogged copy of The Deep, a best selling novel at the time. Flipping through it, the word naked caught my eye, on page ten. I flipped further. There it was again—naked. That’s all it took.
Once safely locked in the bathroom, I started the shower for good measure. I parted the pages of Peter Benchley’s The Deep.
Don’t disappoint me, I thought. And Mr. Benchley surely did not. I remember the exact wording to this day, of the phrase I would read and reread throughout the duration of the summer. About midway through the novel, there was a scene in which the main character and his wife, having rented scooters, are touring the island of Bermuda. They are kidnapped, ostensibly by the ‘bad guys,’ and forced to endure a humiliating strip search. The man watches the other men stripping his wife.
‘The palpable excitement of the gawking men was contagious, and he could feel the blood rushing into his groin…’
My other outlet was an afternoon exercise program on VHF titled Body Buddies. In the seventies, before ON TV and Z Channel opened the floodgates and ushered in the Cable TV era, all one had to choose between was UHF and VHF. UHF housed the major networks, and VHF provided sad home for everything else not worth watching. Had it not been for the ultra-short dolphin shorts the trainer wore, I might have flipped right on past Body Buddies myself. Instead, I would re main riveted for hours at a time, huddled in front of my father’s small battery-operated television set in the kitchen, sound turned down. To say that there was no privacy in our household is an understatement. In addition to three siblings and myself, there were two parents, two dogs, a cat, two parakeets, a hermit crab, and the odd straggler living in our spare bedroom at any given time. And so it was that I found myself all too often conducting my gratuitous viewing in the company of the bread box and crock pot. Had I used the large television in the den, my sudden interest in exercise would have been suspect.
“What the hell happened to my goddamn batteries?” My father growled one day, baffled at their inability to hold a charge for any length of time.
As the summer wore on, and the novelty of my new pastime wore off, the big questions set in. At eleven, though I was incapable of thinking even a moment ahead, part of me was grappling with what my new discovery meant for my future. Simply put, how this would all pan out. Despite my initial acceptance, something had seeped in. Suddenly I was seeing and hearing things around me that had previously blended seamlessly into the white noise. When searching Reader’s Digest for the word ‘naked’ (to no avail,) I came across a humor article titled ‘How You Know It’s Going To Be a Bad Day.’ Number six posited, ‘You put your bra on backwards and it fits better.’ Number seven read, ‘Your son says he wishes Anita Bryant would mind her own business.’
I knew who she was. The orange juice lady. When it came to the news, my attention span was that of a nervous housefly on caffeine. Still, it was impossible not to overhear fragmented news stories about Ms. Bryant’s religious campaigns against the ‘homosexual agenda.’ When the newscasters covered the story, were forced to say the ‘h’ word, it seemed foreign on their tongues, and they spit it out uncomfortably. As if speaking Latin for the first time. My comprehension of all things gay was virtually nonexistent, and Burbank liked it that way. America liked it that way. San Francisco, I’d overheard, was where the gays lived. I pictured it as some sort of Mecca, neither glamorous nor decadent, but somehow unreal. I pictured all those sandal-wearing hippies with their earrings and bushy beards, in the far-off land of San Francisco, a world away. This was the extent of my familiarity with gay culture. Now I knew, thanks to Anita Bryant and Reader’s Digest, how mothers felt about gay sons.
A week later, glancing absently at the television set, my own mother confirmed as much. Taking in grainy concert footage of David Bowie—his spiked hair, his leather pants, his dual-colored eyes lined with plenty of black liner, she commented, “That guy’s every mother’s nightmare of a gay son…”
The next night my mother was at the Creative Arts Center where she was taking a painting class from her mentor, Paul Rubens. My mother often modeled for Paul, and another senior artist by the name of Claude, who sculpted nothing but fortune cookies and dragons. At the Creative Arts Center, my mother honed her earth mama skills—ceramics and macramé, in the presence of kindred spirits who could give her what her husband could not.
“Doesn’t bother you that she poses for him?” my Father’s friend Jack prodded. Before Jack’s stint with the Jolly Green Giant, the two had laid concrete together. Their mindset was blue collar to say the least.
“Nah,” was my Dad’s response. “He’s—you know…”
With that my father raised his burly arm in to the air, curled the bicep. But instead of making a muscle, he flung his hand the other way in an all-too familiar limp-wristed gesture.
My parents’ off-handed comments did not sting. They did, however, rise to the surface somehow like cream begging to be skimmed off. There was nothing mean-spirited about their reflections—they were the norm. This was a generation who felt the need to call Liberace and Paul Lynd ‘bachelors.’ My mother had made sure to expose her children to diversity—in the form of Ted, the gymnastics coach, and his special friend Jessie. But the nature of their relationship was never explained. And the silence spoke louder than words; the inability to utter the word left a vacuum in which my father’s slurs and those of society, were deafening.
The real downside to growing up in a society that dare not speak the word, is that little white trash boys must grow up, even next door to Hollywood, thinking they’re the only one in the world who has ever had a strange attraction to the Jolly Green Giant or Mr. Clean. In an effort to combat the isolation, to find someone, something with which to identify, I took a trip to the local library. To learn more about my ‘condition.’ If the mainstream media could hardly bring newscasters to utter the word, the burden would be on me to find my peeps, where I belonged. Later I would discover the unlikely bond I shared with those married Burbank men in the back seats of cars, but for the moment I would have to find it in a book. My quest for God’s opinion in my copy of The Way had been like searching for intelligent life on other planets. Maybe the Burbank Public Library would yield more.
I veered from the sidewalk onto the patchy lawn of the library, maple leaves crunching with each step. For some reason I looked to the street, where cars zipped by on the four-lane avenue. No one was looking; it was safe to proceed.
Just as I was approaching the glass door on the side of the building, a raspy voice called out.
“Heeeeyyy!” It was Slobert Hatchford. He was rapidly approaching from the Children’s library next door.
“Hey,” I called back, trying to muster the requisite degree of enthusiasm.
“You doin’ summer school too?” Everyone knew making up time was the only reason to go near a library in summer.
“Nooo…” I stalled, in order to conjure up an alibi. I’m researching homos would never fly.
“So...what are you doing here?”
“Whatever I want.” It was the best I could come up with.
“You’re coming to the library by choice? What a dork!”
With that I marched into the library, not looking back.
Inside, the hermetic silence was profound. The heavy glass door swung shut behind me, destroying the frail tranquility of the sanctuary. Every eye in the room looked up, glared at me from beneath furrowed brows. I took a step.
Squeeeeeeeeaak! My Vans Slip-ons had never so much as muttered a peep. And now they were a deafening cacophony of impertinence.
A second step.
Squeeeeeeeeeaak! It even sounded gay. If no one here knew before why I came, they surely know now.
I cursed the soles of my shoes, and made a beeline for the card catalogue. The Librarian behind the counter eyed me disapprovingly, tracing my perilous journey across the Berber carpeting. She wore a silver pageboy, and a conservative pantsuit with slight shoulder pads. I’d dealt with her type before, not just at the library, but at the Hallmark store where the Korean proprietors assumed anyone under five feet tall was out to shoplift them into the poorhouse. This woman, all librarians, had made a career out of condescending, intimidation. I was not to escape her all-seeing radar.
At the reference section’s card catalogue, I turned my back to the main desk, and began rifling through the hand-tipped cards of the Dewey Decimal System. Each card threatened to burst an eardrum as it scraped its mahogany drawer.
Gavarnie, Gavial, Gawain…
Scrape. Scrape. Scrape.
What? No GAY? Nothing gay at all?
I moved to the ‘H’ drawer. Surely there was something. Homo-this or homo-that. The librarian scowled, her omniscient gaze burning a hole through the yellowed tabs. She was on to me. Still, I could not turn back now.
Aha! There, lodged between ‘homogenous’ and ‘Hona,’ I found them. Two measly cards, representing the two books in the reference section devoted to my condition.
I thumbed the first.
The David Kopay Story.
I read the brief description, typed faintly on the manila card: Autobiography: David Marquette Kopay (born June 28, 1942 in Chicago, Illinois) A Running back in the American National Football League, David, in 1975, became the first American athlete to come out as gay.
Hmmmmmm…I thought. Who knew? Another well kept secret. I would definitely be checking it out; maybe there would be pictures. Locker room pictures.
The second card represented a reference book titled Preventing Homosexuality.
Its cover featured the photographic image of two healthy, happy prepubescent boys playing tag football, while a third, glum and runt-like, played with dolls in the shadowy foreground. It was easy to key into his sad, disenfranchised expression, so close to the camera and all. The tableau behind him, diffused and dappled with sunlight, was like an out-of-reach fantasy, unattainable and clearly not on the menu for the pathetic boy.
A glutton for punishment, I cracked its cover.
Perusing the first few chapters, certain passages, certain words, jumped out at me. Freudian, Kinsey Spectrum, and APA, or American Psychological Association. I stopped here.
‘The American Psychological Association,’ the paragraph read, ‘lists homosexuality among its chronicle of mental illnesses…’
Hmmmmmmm. Mental Illness. I didn’t feel crazy.
I continued skimming.
More words, like aberration, abomination, unnatural. Sin.
I didn’t feel like a sinner. Sure, there was some shame attached to my newfound pastime, but wasn’t that true of everyone? Wasn’t everyone shameful about sex? Or at least modest? Surely I wasn’t the first. And besides, what Jim Palmer and I did behind closed doors was a private act. Were all private acts sinful? Like pooping or belching? Were all biological functions sinful just because you didn’t wish to share them with the world?
I didn’t like what I was reading. So I flipped ahead. And things weren’t about to get any better. On page 143:
‘The outcome of homosexuality is a negative resolution of the Oedipus complex, in which the male child renounces the competition with the father for the mother’s affection, adopting the homosexual position. This is often, if not always exacerbated by the domineering mother and absent or distant father…’
I thought about it. My mother was anything but domineering. Or smothering. Still, some of this had the ring of truth. Like a fortune cookie or an astrological reading, through its universality and the power of suggestion, it resonated somehow. I would later in life learn that all American men of my generation viewed their fathers as distant; longed for a closer relationship. But for the moment, these damning correlations, these statistical observations, these off-based misapprehensions relied on my suggestibility. I was being told, in no uncertain terms, what I was. Like it or not.
On page 200, in the chapter titled, ‘Who is at risk?’:
The symptoms of an at-risk boy are: excessively ‘pretty,’ sickly, sensitive, non-athletic, fear of rough and tumble play, lack of same-sex playmates, dislike of team sports, doll play, cross dressing or interest in women's clothes or shoes, effeminate speech or mannerism, taking the feminine role when playing ‘house.’
I thought back to the day my neighbor Maria had crossed the street, bubbling over with enthusiasm, after receiving Malibu Barbie for her birthday. Not just Barbie herself, but Ken, the Flower Power Van, and all the accessories one could want or need. Despite her attempts to seduce me into the world of Malibu Barbie, I will go to my grave saying I was not tempted in the least. Not even to peek beneath Ken’s fuchsia swim trucks to see if he was, well, anatomically correct.
And with regard to cross dressing—I would learn later it was primarily a heterosexual fixation, linked to sexual arousal, that the tradition of Drag within the gay community had more to do with embracing society’s mischaracterizations and celebrating gender-bending. Having little or no sexual attraction to women, I couldn’t imagine for a moment why I would want to dress in their lace panties. Simply put, the panties and I did not have a lot in common.
The final straw that day at the Burbank Public Library, the one that caused me to firmly snap shut the book’s antiquated cover and reject its outdated Freudian views, was the following passage:
‘Gay men, without the benefit of offspring or companionship, struggle with aging. Once unable to procure the sexual relations that have come to define their lifestyle, gay men take to paying for sex, or pandering to procure favors in sex clubs, dark alleys or adult bookstores…’
So this is what I had to look forward to.
At eleven, my bullshit detector was already pretty accurate. I didn’t buy a word of what I was reading. What I had learned was that the reason society dared not speak the word, the reason the newscasters choked on it, was the fear of revealing their own ambivalence. Their distaste. Or outright vehemence. My search for intelligent life, my search for kindred spirits, for a single example with whom I could identify, had led me here. To the Burbank public library, where the book I now clutched, with its cheesy cover, was telling me all that I was up against. That homosexuals would be represented in film, only so long as they were also degenerates or axe murderers. That they would be the second in line to have their throats slit in horror movies. After the black guy, of course. And how satisfying it would be when the limp-wristed, lispy character is finally thrown from the third-story window.
Standing there in the Mental Illness section, my condition lumped in with schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, and the compulsion to wash ones hands five hundred times a day, I had no crystal ball. I could not know that the Zen-like self-acceptance that was my nature would come and go, ebb and flow. I couldn’t foresee that isolation would set in during adolescence, that it would both make me lonely and forge character. I had no way of knowing that in young adulthood I would cherish this character, count introspection among the gifts that were the flipside of the ‘gay’ gene. I would learn that the authors of Preventing Homosexuality were putting the cart before the horse—identifying by-products, confounding correlations with causality. And society would learn along with me, about the genetic components, the brain differences confirming it, about finger-length and pre-natal hormone levels. Television would go from sheepishly uttering the word ‘gay’ solely in reference to Jack Tripper, who was only ‘pretending’ to be gay, to allowing The Real World’s Pedro into our homes. The first real live homo, in his native habitat, living a respectable life. Letters from isolated boys living in cornfields in Iowa would thank him for saving them from suicide through his very existence. His visibility. Television would go on to feature a gay character in virtually every single prime-time show in its lineup. All novelties, granted, but eventually it would be a non-issue. Characters would be matter-of-factly gay. Unaffected.
I would come to forget the excruciating isolation, the profound silence of my youth. Only when trying to ‘make a difference’ for young homos through my filmmaking would I force myself back into that space. I would eventually be awed by the degree of change I’d glimpse in my own lifetime, to marvel at the very idea that the issue of Gay Marriage would even be on the table. I would live to see the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell.’ My own niece would found the Gay Student Union, would tout tolerance as if she’d invented it. I would come to wonder what I might possibly have to offer her generation, so far ahead of my own. I would feel obsolete and purposeless. I would feel like a relic.
Until I reminded myself, that is, that my generation laid the groundwork. As did the Stonewall generation before mine.
I took one last look at the words on the page of Preventing Homosexuality, and slammed its cheesy cover closed with a THUD. The librarian looked up. I smiled at her, slipped the book back into its place on the cold metal shelf.
And then, Vans slip-ons squeaking with every step, enunciating my pride, rejecting the propaganda, I strolled past the librarian with her conservative pageboy and condescending scowl.
Outside, I surveyed the traffic slipping by on Verdugo Avenue. I no longer cared who saw me emerging from the library. Still, I chose the alley for some reason. It ran the length of Verdugo Avenue, but several hundred yards north. And it stretched from Buena Vista all the way past Verdugo Recreation center to my own home a good half-mile away. I looked down at the gritty, lacerating shards and pebbles punctuating the asphalt. It had once been slick and uninterrupted, was now corrugated with deeply etched lines. Somehow I wanted to feel it beneath my padded soles, every sharply protruding apex and recessed rivulet. Every nook and cranny, divot and pockmark.
I removed my Van Slip-ons, held them in my hand.
Only White Trash run around barefoot, Mr. Hatchford’s voice reminded me.
“Your son wears fag shoes,” I replied.
With that, I started padding down the alley, eyeing the long, long road ahead.
MOTHER FUCKING THERESA
Several months after my discharge from the hospital, I was still not ready to write about the ordeal. It was ongoing, and everything had changed.
My life had changed.
In the hospital, nieces and nephews who came to visit had given me lined notepads, sketchbooks and art supplies, even a box of crayons. But I’d merely eyed them from across the sterile, white room, no desire to create. Not even as a means to pass the time. I felt no need to process or glean some kind of flimsy meaning from what I was going through. Or to dig in the dirt for inspiration. I’d spent my life making lemonade of lemons, forging justice out of complete chaos. I’m sure others saw my resistance as part of a process with stages, like mourning; I was in survival mode and would make sense of it all later through my art, as was my way. But really, all I wanted to do was lie there and binge watch Santa Clarita Diet now that I had a Netflix password and my sister had left her laptop, which I perched on my food tray inches from my face. I did not have cable at home (long story) which means I’d never seen ‘House of Cards,’ ‘Madmen,’ or even (gasp) ‘Game of Thrones.’ I had little to say about zombies or drug runners or dragons. I was finding it hard to hold a conversation, or frankly, live on the planet. I considered my hospital imprisonment ‘catch-up time.’
My sister, René, a kindred spirit and fellow author, had urged me to write about my brush with death, for catharsis. “It would make a great memoir,” she added, knowing my collection ‘Jesus Shoes’ had no real ending yet.
‘It would have to be a comedy,’ was my response. I’d settled into a Zen-like state once I found myself at the mercy of medical professionals, had discovered true surrender accepting care from them despite my fierce independence. Letting go had put everything in perspective. When one undergoes a ‘four eye exam’ (which I learned is standing stark naked while two fully-clothed grown men, ostensibly infectious disease specialists, examine every inch of your body with their four collective eyes,) pride and ego fly out the window. Not to mention having every microscopic freckle and bedsore photographed daily. And so many different people had had their finger up my butt that at one point I was sure the janitor had slipped into line to get in on the fun. And at least one homeless guy who’d wandered in off the street.
I was a bit baffled myself by my lack of creative inspiration. In my writing, I’d often referred to one’s craft as a surrogate for real connection. But I was okay with that, even with the delusion that the fruits of it were a purposeful contribution to…something. Humankind? The collective? Analyzing my dry spell, the best theory I could come up with was that I did not want to reduce something so sacred to anecdote, for fear of possibly forgetting the nuance. When it came to vacation pictures, those that made it in the album became the official version of an event, whereas the rejects (which fleshed out the story) were relegated to a lightless box in storage. Putting words to my rebirth seemed reductive; there were so many aspects to what led me here. It was simply too big.
Just yesterday, back home in my apartment, I reread a memoir I’d written several years ago. It chronicled discovering my sexuality in ’79, and the coming out process that followed. It juxtaposed the innocent self-acceptance that had characterized the discovery, and the negative messaging from society that would cause it to ebb and flow throughout adolescence. Throughout my life. Its ending depicted the 11 year-old version of me eyeing the long road ahead…that of deflecting those messages, refusing to let them in. Tears streamed from my eyes as I read. I now knew I had to write about my near-death and rebirth.
In the story, titled Jesus Shoes, I’d ventured into the local library to research ‘my condition.’ In 1979, the card catalogue yielded precisely two entries: David Kopay’s memoir about being the first professional NFL player to come out, and an outdated, Freudian book titled Preventing Homosexuality. It spoke of distant fathers and overbearing mothers, boys that played with dolls, and the ominous assessment that gay men struggle with aging, resorting to paying for sex or trolling smoky clubs and dark alleys before dying alone. My bullshit detector, even at the age of 11, had been honed. I’d slammed the cover shut and rejected the propaganda’s ominous prophecies for my life.
When I reread the essay, it took me a while to figure out why the tears would not stop. The real epiphany was this: the reason the tears flowed and the reason I knew I had to write the bookend to ‘Jesus Shoes’ as a companion piece were the same: I’d become what the library book predicted. Somehow, despite my best efforts, society’s messages had seeped in. Permeated the armor of a man who believed himself impervious to self-loathing and bullshit.
I suddenly knew I could write about the vast experience without having to discard all the angles the piece could take. After all, one’s entire life led up to the present moment, didn’t it? Which story would I tell? An ex-boyfriend who was no stranger to therapy had once told me, “You’d be amazed how much of who you are is attached to being gay. To the gay experience.” As I wiped tears, I knew I could tell the story of my recent ordeal through the gay lens without compromising its sacredness. That the mental, emotional and spiritual implications were no less valid for committing to a theme.
Four and a half months earlier
I turned my head, ever so slightly, from the drool stain I’d cultivated on the arm of my sofa, to the peachy ambience reluctantly draining from an otherwise swarthy sky outside my apartment window. The mournful twilight seemed vaguely familiar as it deepened to harness the fiery hues of dusk. Yes, it was a sunset. Not a sunrise, but a sunset. Sunrises were altogether cooler in tone and more sublime. But why was the image so familiar? Had it imprinted itself on my mind’s eye in a dream, mere moments ago when my eyes drifted open, or twenty-four hours earlier when the sun last sank behind the Santa Monica Mountains?
It didn’t matter.
At least I’d slept. It was a welcome respite from the sleepless hours of excruciating, throbbing pain inside my skull that had characterized most nights of late. I’d all but begged for the sweet mercy of death; sleep was the next best thing.
I surveyed the lineup of abandoned to-go cartons on my distressed wood coffee table, the one I’d bought in the early ‘90s and kept, the one indistinguishable from Monica’s on Friends. Once I’d lost the stamina to walk to the main drag a block away for sustenance, I’d taken to Grub-Hubbing and Door-Dashing meals. That way, all I had to do was drag myself to the door and grab the goods.
But after one or two bites, each meal met the same fate: that of joining the graveyard of cartons and cardboard containers full of food that didn’t taste as it should. Salt tasted sweet. Sugar tasted salty. And everything, sweet or savory, was tinged bitter. Once a particular meal was abandoned, there was no going back to it. The very sight of each tombstone-like carton made me want to wretch. I’d never been a picky eater, even as a child. I’d eat anything, anytime, anywhere. Except for the liver my siblings and I had thrown out the open, screenless window from our kitchen table when Mom and Dad weren’t looking.
The taste disorder I was experiencing was what most would simply call ‘loss of appetite.’ What I couldn’t know was that my body was septic, and trying to starve itself to death out of altruism.
Somehow, between the splayed Chinese food cartons, among the dangling bean sprouts and plastic chopsticks, I spotted my cell phone. By some miracle, it held a charge.
“I think two days have passed here on the couch,” I informed my sister, René, once I’d listlessly dialed and she’d picked up. “But I only know that because the sky changed color outside my window.” I laughed. It was funny to me.
“Your vocal folds are not making contact,” René diagnosed. She was a vocal instructor who for thirty years had commended me when I was in ‘good voice’ and noted the most miniscule variance when my chords were inflamed.
“Did you get the kombucha? And the other stuff?” she wanted to know. “I set it inside your door.”
Later I’d learn that stopping by and finding my door ajar, so unlike me, was the moment she’d known what poor shape I was in. That, and the lack of response to her persistent knocking. She’d discretely left a bag of groceries, kombucha, and cannabis products just inside the semi-open door.
“I’m picking you up first thing in the morning, and we’re going to the E.R.”
Mission accomplished. I’d dropped hints to her alone that something serious was going on. I’d let it slip that I’d ‘fallen’ due to disequilibrium. Not to the floor but into a wall. Still, nothing like that had ever happened to me. Even in youth, plied with shitty beer and Schnapps. I knew I had the gift of appearing functional, put-together, and capable under any circumstance, and that to be taken seriously I’d have to be a squeaky wheel. I couldn’t burden my parents with too many hints; they were 76 and 77 with their own health issues to worry about. But I wanted someone on Earth to be aware. More than that, I knew that René was the one fierce enough to put a gun to my head and force me to go to a doctor. I came by my stubbornness honestly; in my family one went to the doctor as a last resort, just below death on the list of alternatives. I’d framed my own stubbornness as principle, a staunch belief in our innate power to maintain perfect cellular health through the mind/body/spirit connection. Despite my best efforts, I was in bad shape.
I chose René not simply because she was a kindred spirit and my closest sibling, nor because she was cause-oriented, latching on like a pit bull and never letting go. She was not the chosen one because I knew her priorities aligned with mine, that we agreed what mattered in life was showing up, being there, remaining stalwart and unflinching. With four kids, she’d navigated the health care system more than anyone I knew, relying on wisdom from her mother-in-law and second-best friend who were both nurses. None of that made me pick René to passive-aggressively burden with the saving of my life.
It’s that I had no one else.
When Rene’ and I arrived at Glendale Adventist Hospital that Saturday, shades of my last experience at the very same E.R. came back to me. Like now, I’d had no health insurance. Admissions had been unable to attach a price to my visit before seeing the doctor, to put a cap on the potential bill. Who in their right mind would go any further without a cap, or some kind of assurance? I’d heard horror stories about surprise bills of tens of thousands of dollars that had followed people to the grave or been inherited by children and grandchildren. No, thanks. I didn’t even have children, let alone grandchildren. I’d walked out then, and the same thing would transpire today.
“Christian institution, my ass!” Rene’ and I spat as we headed to the car to venture on to plan B. She’d heard from her good friend Donna, the nurse, that Glendale Adventist’s mission statement prevented them from turning anyone away, being a Christian institution and all. That may have been true, but it didn’t stop them from sticking patients with bills that would bind them to a life of indentured servitude.
“Never mind that I was born there fifty years ago…” I scoffed.
René shook her head. “Holds no water.”
We laughed as we headed southward on the 5 freeway toward LAC-USC Medical Center, otherwise known as plan B. I didn’t feel sick, or dying. I was actually enjoying the time with my sister, who I counted as a good friend. Such is the nature of denial, I’d later realize, of being the proverbial frog in the boiling water who’s forgotten what it’s like to feel well. Who’s unaware he’s lost twenty pounds and insists his sister is exaggerating. Who can’t see well enough to sign the intake paperwork and claims the shakiness is due to the flimsy clipboard and leaning on his elbow at the wrong angle. As we went through the admissions process at USC’s E.R., I systematically dismissed all of Rene’s observations, positing she was being overly dramatic. Later she’d admit she was afraid at times she’d lose me, until a dream told her this was not the end of my story. But even I would look at those shaky signatures once the surreal fog had lifted and I was me again, and scarcely recognize them as my own. They’d appeared altogether normal to me in the moment, but later looked like the scrawlings of someone’s grandmother with Parkinson’s. Who was also operating a jackhammer while jacked up on coffee.
It was a good move trekking to the armpit of L.A. to USC Medical Center, one that would later seem ordained by God. We were assured the facility catered to cash patients without insurance, providing social workers to aid in MediCal applications, even securing emergency MediCal for the undocumented. These folks truly did not turn anyone away, nor did they stick anyone with devastating bills, by all accounts. The fear of financial ruin took a back seat and I was able to bite the bullet.
When asked the reason for my visit, I thought, ‘where should I begin?’
But rather than boring anyone with details of the two years previous, during which I’d known something was terribly amiss but had upped my spiritual practice as a means of taking my health into my own hands, I simply cited the persistent cough that had dogged me the whole time. I cited exhaustion and fatigue. Stopping short, of course, of describing how the one-block jaunt to the corner market had become a mile-long excursion saddled with sandbags, a ball and chain, and a six-ton elephant for good measure. I may have mentioned something to do with my stool. “But mainly,” I said, “I’m here because I have been drooling on the couch for two weeks, with a splitting headache that lasts all day and all night.”
Seemed like good enough reason to me.
Saying the litany of tests the E.R. ran was impressive would be like saying Jesus had connections or Atilla the Hun was moody. There were vitals and blood work and MRIs and body scans. A lumbar puncture and the first of the many fingers up my ass. Their quick work put my previously aborted attempts to shame, those of trying to secure a diagnosis through my general practitioner—getting the referral to a lung specialist, waiting weeks for approval, (during the blink of an eye I’d qualified for MediCal) then tooling all over town for the subsequent scans. What a joke that had been. In a matter of hours, the doctor who had been assigned to my case at the E.R. returned to my room with a clipboard. She’d been introduced to us as Dr. Nadia. She was tall and exotic in appearance, with a killer figure evident even in scrubs. René and I had noted her unearthly beauty. We’d both hit the age where our respective doctors were younger than both of us and the nurses were clearly 12 year-olds.
René had lingered in the hall during most procedures, looking worried through the tiny glass window embedded in the door as she pantomimed conversation with the medical staff. She was back in the room now, and Dr. Nadia asked my permission to divulge the test results in her presence. Nothing to lose, I said it was fine. I trusted Dr. Nadia. She’d been the one to give me the lumbar puncture, which made me a religious person and bonded me to her in one fell swoop. And her finger had been up my ass, so we had something of a relationship.
“You are HIV-positive,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Not only that, but you have full-blown AIDs.” For reasons I would only later understand, I did not bat an eye, only nodded. The woman then rattled off the list of opportunistic infections and diseases I had contracted as a result, many typically accompanying the AIDs virus. So extensive was the list that it read like ‘War and Peace.’ I was tempted to stop her and say, “Just tell me what I don’t have; it will be quicker.”
The most dire of my diagnoses after HIV was Cryptococchal Meningitis, which certainly explained the hours of drooling on the couch and the incessant splitting headache. The second most imminent was Hepatitis B. Then there was a venereal disease or two, diabetes, tuberculosis, and a lower intestinal infection, which explained the stool issue. Though it was not mentioned, I later read in my medical records that I had been ‘septic,’ which means close to death and just short of toxic shock. I would be transported from the E.R. to the hospital and admitted. It was explained to me that the stay would be considerable, that a regime of intravenous antibiotics would have to be administered right away, and that the full course would have to be completed on the premises over weeks, could not be done orally on an outpatient basis. I would have to be hydrated throughout, and have my liver monitored. It was serious.
“The Meningitis alone is deadly,” Dr. Nadia was sure to tell me. “It’s a good thing you came when you did.”
René kept pace as a nurse shuttled me from the ER to the general hospital in a wheelchair. It felt silly; I was perfectly capable of walking, despite acute nausea and dizziness from the multiple shots in the shoulder they’d administered. Once admitted to my permanent cell in the main hospital, René and I were left alone at last. I’d been hooked up to an ominous-looking IV to be hydrated with saline before beginning a regime of antibiotics. There’d been more vitals taken, more blood samples: I guess the seven vials of spinal fluid they’d collected during the lumbar puncture weren’t enough for them. I secretly suspected there was a black market for this stuff; I already had more needle tracks than a heroine-addicted prostitute. When the pick lines were first installed, I watched the darker-than-expected river of blood rush through clear tubing, imagining the millions of pathogens I now knew were coursing along with it. With all the poking and prodding, there’d been no time to check in with René, to gauge her take on my damning diagnoses. Even now, alone in the room, there were more pressing issues than whether she was judging me or feeling sorry for me. Like the saliva pooling in my mouth and the subtle sheath of sweat forming on my brow.
“Hand me that, please,” I said quickly, indicating the plastic bussing tub nearby. A wave of nausea had hit me like a ton of bricks, without warning. I wretched, but to no avail; the involuntary act was ultimately unproductive. I’d gone through the motions, with nothing to show for it.
I hadn’t blown chunks since the ‘80s, and even then only after downing a twelve pack of Heineken. “I’m just not a vomiter,” I’d said proudly over the years, counting my cast iron stomach a blessing. And today was no different; I’d retain my track record and policy of dry-heave-only.
I looked up from the plastic tub. There was no pity in my sister’s expression—not a trace of judgment. Her blue eyes were all I could fix on, due to the duck-like mask she’d been forced to wear. The room I’d been checked into was sterile and there would be a period of TB clearance just short of quarantine. Nope, no judgment in those eyes, familiar as my own soul. Only the stalwart, unflinching courage that made us kindred spirits. Later, I’d be overwhelmed by the magnitude of my sister’s devotion, considering she was the busiest person I knew. She’d already taken on the role of advocate, noting every diagnosis, every med and its dosage in milliliters, on a tiny pad. She’d later commandeer the filling out and return of every application for every assistance program that my ‘cognitively impaired’ (Doctor’s words) brain could not begin to manage. She’d cancel students many times over, foregoing income, and drive the forty-five minutes to be by my bedside, or the two hours when coming from Redlands where she was an adjunct professor two days a week. And when she couldn’t be there herself, she’d take to scheduling visitors. It was the closest I’d ever come to having a social secretary.
Later, when my fierce independence took a backseat and I allowed myself to be cared for, I’d thank her profusely, knowing there was no repaying such selfless sacrifice, no apology for taking advantage of her own sickness—the inability to say no and the compulsion to take on ‘projects’ as a diversion from empty nest syndrome. I’d had no choice. Oh, I had friends, but time and circumstance had scattered them geographically. And the friends I maintained in my own neighborhood just weren’t, well, that kind of friend. I’d long since learned not everyone defined friendship the way I did, that spending time with someone did not equal loyalty to many. I was okay with that. Still, as grateful as I was that I had someone like my sister, I’d find myself hoping that I hadn’t cashed in on our friendship, worn out my welcome. That one day she’d return to seeing me not as a charity case, but an equal. That I could one day shed the pathetic costume bestowed, on me and return to dignity in her eyes. Funny, my whole life had been devoted to…dignity.
I had no idea what I was in for—the degree to which that dignity would be stripped away. For the moment, the only embarrassment was due to the unflattering fashion-faux pas of the flimsy, butt-less gown I’d been forced to wear backwards. Man had sent a rocket to the moon, but had yet to design a hospital gown that did not put one’s parts on display.
Rene’ scrawled a few final notes on her tiny pad, my informal medical record, and tucked it away in her purse. In the comfortable silence that ensued, I resisted explaining myself to her—how I might have contracted the virus. Who might have seroconverted an otherwise responsible, upstanding citizen like myself. In the early days, soon after I and the rest of America became aware of ‘the gay disease’ thanks to Rock Hudson and despite the Reagan administration, I’d been skeptical. Though not a conspiracy theorist in any other arena, I somehow knew the virus had leaked from a germ warfare lab, not from an amorous monkey in Africa. I knew it was no mistake it landed primarily in a marginalized community, an undesirable one. After all, countless documentation existed of forced sterilization in urban African-American communities, of unwitting military recruits being used as Guinea pigs in secret mustard gas tests. At the very least, the government’s silence and inaction (Reagan did not speak the word AIDS publicly until four years into his presidency) spoke volumes.
I couldn’t defend my hunches, so I kept them to myself. I would simply say, “We just don’t know enough.” It was true the early attempts at treatment, like AZT and ‘the cocktail’ were killing as many as they were helping. I watched many friends and acquaintances succumb in those early days, though not as many as some who were a bit older and firmly entrenched in the gay community. I’d accompanied a friend after our regular bike rides when he delivered meals to homebound AIDS patients, marveling at their grace under fire. I’d seen the tragic demise of a far-removed family member (an in-law of Rene’s, in fact) who’d been surrounded by ridicule and Christian finger pointing in his final days.
And so I kept my policy to myself, the one that would remain in force my entire adult life. It was personal; I did not expect anyone on Earth to appreciate it or find it responsible. The policy was this: given the uncharted waters surrounding HIV, and my hunches the government was (actively or passively) killing us off, I would simply have ‘safer sex’ as I understood it. I would not be tested; after all, the early days were also rampant with ‘false positives.’ And those false positives were being put on a regime of AZT that would surely put them in an early grave. I was in perfect health, and would look into being tested the moment I found myself sick. My policy was firmly rooted in a fundamental understanding of the universe—that we had the goods to maintain homeostasis, even perfect cellular health without pharmaceuticals. Man had the means, in his DNA, to fight every pathogen his ancestors ever encountered. With a bit of help from inoculations, of course. I knew all disease preyed on chinks in the armor.
I was good for the time being. All was good.
Still, at thirty-five or so, a seed was planted. During a rare doctor visit, I’d refused an HIV test. But it was mandatory for the voluntary procedure being done. “Go ahead,” I’d said, “Just don’t tell me the results.” I knew full well that diagnoses and prognoses only accelerated diseases, if for no other reason than the power of suggestion and the placebo effect. I knew the Asian tradition of withholding damning diagnoses from loved ones lest they deteriorate exponentially was rooted in something very real.
After my voluntary procedure, though the doctor honored my wishes, he looked me squarely, insistently in the eye. “You really should be tested for HIV. I highly recommend you get tested.”
A few years later, I’d visited a free clinic in the heart of West Hollywood, the gay ghetto. Without medical insurance, I’d gone there to look into something that turned out to be nothing. In the lobby, I’d been surrounded by unsavory characters and dysfunction—drug addiction, mental illness, pain. Mumbling and outright aggression and poor hygiene. As I looked around the room, I struggled to find my compassion, but at the same time knew I never wanted to be part of that club. To identify.
I was not like those people, so hostile, so raw. I’d managed my pain in life; I’d been lucid and kept demons in check. I’d journaled and gone to therapy. I’d read ‘Adult Children of Alcoholics’ and knew what made me tick. After digging in the dirt, I’d cultivated a spiritual regime, practicing yoga, chanting and meditating. I’d attended Christian churches of every denomination, as well as synagogue and Kabbalah and the tiny Indian shrine in Angeles forest that was the first built in L.A. I’d eventually learn that although I was a self-made man with no silver spoon in his mouth, my very makeup was a gift—the one that allowed me to rise above pain and disappointment.
A week after receiving a few ‘preemptive shots’ that day at the clinic, I received a call. Or more accurately, a recorded phone message. In it, the clinician clearly could not legally say certain things in a reecording. But he did urge me to return for the results of my blood tests.
I never called back.
Still, I remained responsible. I was not one of those gluttons for punishment who did drugs or lost all judgment in the heat of the moment.
“I’ll never know how I contracted this,” I said to my sister at last. The nurses had not returned, had apparently found someone else to stick needles in. “And it doesn’t really matter.”
And then I admitted it. “I actually think I’ve been HIV positive for much of my adult life.” I proceeded to tell her about my friend and Disney colleague, Gregg, who was a decade older than myself. He was in the medical books for his rare ‘natural immunity’ to HIV. He’d tested positive but remained asymptomatic and undetectable for years without treatment. I suggested I’d been like that—lucky.
“But at fifty,” I bookended, “Gregg moved to Florida, quickly deteriorated, and died.”
I’d just turned fifty. There was something about fifty. I said as much.
I didn’t say that life takes its toll, that things seep in or catch up with you. Things like heartbreak and disappointment and negative messaging from society. Without saying it, I’d been thinking about the Freudian book I’d slammed shut at Burbank Public Library in the summer of 1979. The one with damning prophecies for my life.
Oh, things had done nothing but improve. The campaign of commercials titled ‘It Gets Better,” aimed at young gays in cornfields in Iowa searching for peeps, promised as much. Offered hope. And my life had been no exception; things had gotten better. Soon after starting Disney at twenty-one, I’d penned an essay titled ‘What Being Gay Has Given Me.’ I’d been inspired by all the character I saw in the successful gay men I was now surrounded by, many of them Disney execs and couples who owned homes in Silver Lake’s hills. The essay centered on introspection as a bi-product of alienation, the forging of character through the challenge of isolation. How being marginalized made one think outside the box and how survival itself became a creative act. It was no mistake that creativity was the flipside of the gay gene. I wouldn’t have traded any of it for the world. In the prime of youth, that is, with the world by the balls.
Around that time, I had two gay roommates who did their best to inculcate me into gay culture. But the one time I mimicked the snapping of fingers and runway walk that was Chris’s campy trademark, I felt dirty. I attended drag shows, but soon found them derivative and highly unoriginal. You saw one tragic queen peddling Tupperware, you’d seen them all. I found myself trying to laugh, but instead smelling the air of sadness that hung over all. I learned that cattiness, wittiness and acerbic quips were a thin disguise for pain. And flaunting one’s jadedness just seemed unbecoming and desperate. Over the course of a month in the mid-nineties, all the upstanding, long-term couples broke up—those that had served as redeeming examples to me. The eleven-year itch had apparently set in.
The more I became aware of the dark underbelly of the gay experience, the drug and sex addiction, the more I resisted identifying with it. I’m not the most butch creature on the planet, but I found myself lumped into the subculture of ‘non-scene’ guys as they identified themselves in Craig’s List personals. Story of my life: I didn’t fit any one mold. Couldn’t watch football with men, or discuss nails and coupons with women. On the rare occasion I did attend pool parties destined to wind down into casual orgies, I came off like a Mormon missionary.
“Don’t worry,” said a half-naked guy scarcely older than I, when I countered a bitter reflection with a Hallmark sentiment. “One day you’ll be just…like…me.”
It was haunting.
I was relationship-oriented, knew the human heart worked the same straight or gay. I knew those who touted free love and considered themselves exempt from jealousy and propriety had been brainwashed by gay culture. I, in turn, was accused of having been brainwashed by mainstream society and hetero norms. Oh, I had my share of relationships. I lived with Scott for over four years during college, and when I first started working at Disney post-graduation. But the moment I began making more money than him, it was over. Male socialization was inescapable; even gay men’s self-esteem was tied to being breadwinner.
There were other loves. Each one touched a different part of me, made me vulnerable in a new and different way. Even when a relationship ended, I imagined it was all heading somewhere, preparing me for the full package.
I became the one guy who would listen to your heartbreak stories until the cows came home. I wouldn’t tell you to put away the violins. I wouldn’t tell you to cut up pictures and move on, like most people, due to their own limitation to the pain of others. Everything I wrote was about the anatomy of heartbreak, how the ability to give and receive love was a matter of life or death, how all that was at stake when one’s heart was broken. As a Scorpio, I took long breaks between failed relationships. And by that I mean years. Oh, I had plenty casual sex when off the market, but fancied that by not kissing every last stranger I came in contact with, I was preserving true intimacy. Just the brush of fingertips remained magic to me, the energy coursing through them.
I’d told myself I just couldn’t go through another heartbreak. That I wouldn’t survive it. I would hold out for something real, well founded and indestructible, no matter how long it took. But somehow, in the waiting, my currency dried up. I woke up unable to procure like I once had. Or for that matter, turn a head. After all, you’re over the hill at 25 in the gay community. I stopped hearing the question I’d been asked for years: ‘What’s a guy like you doing single?’ When I woke up older than Moses, and not just in dog years, I scarcely recognized the world around me. I’d long since learned to live with what was not on the menu, so when gay marriage became legal, it seemed like a cruel joke. Too much, too little, too late. Part of me couldn’t help but wonder if Scott and I would have lasted had the world been more supportive. Had he not felt like a dirty little secret. Had we been able to celebrate our commitment while others bore witness. After the passage of marriage equality, the prevalence of gay adoption seemed to me a fad, an ego-driven compulsion like collecting luxury automobiles or Malaysian orphans. The world had changed profoundly in my half-century on the planet, for the better. Tolerance was at an all-time high.
But it was too late for me.
“Look,” René said, shoving her cell phone in my face and startling me back from my reverie into the present.
Displayed on the Android’s tiny screen was a photo of the state disability application she’d delivered by hand to the Rand Schrader clinic that morning. It was all in red, and made up of boxes one filled in, one letter per box. As if those seeking assistance couldn’t be trusted to write freely on their own, without boxes. René scrolled through her recent photos, displaying one for each page of the application.
“Once it’s processed,” René parroted, “A case worker will call for more details. Your cell number is on the application.”
I’d somehow let the anxiety go, that of possibly being stuck with insurmountable debt. I’d been told my hospital room alone, which I thought of as my cell, could cost up to ten thousand per day, and I believed it. “All that matters is your health,” countless people reminded me on countless occasions. “Getting well.” Their insistence that I stop worrying about finances and focus on recovery apparently sank in with repetition, and I settled into the aforementioned Zen-like state. Which is not to say that I would sleep a wink during the eighteen day incarceration; there was too much poking and prodding and needling to be done throughout the night. Too many swabs and urine samples to be collected. The door to my cell was a revolving one.
The state of grace I found myself in was one of gratitude. Of appreciating what an incredible gift these medical professionals possessed. Despite their penchant for sticking me up, their patience and competence was only augmented by something that could not be taught in medical school: compassion. I was in awe of it.
I’d resisted visitors at first when my sister suggested lining them up. She’d be in Redlands for two days of teaching, and did not want me to be alone.
“I’m a grown man,” I explained. “I’ve survived alone much of my adult life.”
And then the root of my distaste hit me. I heard myself utter:
“This may be the most bitter thing I say in all of this. I think I’ve been pretty patient. But I am not interested in any superficial displays of affection just because I’m in…here.”
Despite having twenty-two nieces and nephews, almost no one in my family had been inside my current apartment, and I’d been there six years. I’d found myself wondering how my Uncle Bob, a stinking drunk in the middle of the desert, entertained more visitors than I. I’d had the passing thought: If I died, I wonder how many days it would take until my body was discovered. Only the smell of rotting flesh would give me away. I marveled at family members on ‘Dateline’ murder mysteries who put out missing persons’ reports in a matter of 48 hours.
Despite myself, I would eventually allow René to flood my room with visitors. Her grown children alone broke fire codes, rendering my cell ‘standing room only.’ There were gifts, and a ukulele and sheet music to annoy neighboring patients with. Being the sucker that I am, I settled into it. I did feel loved, and it was good for me. Allowing myself to be cared for was indeed the blessing in all of this—letting love in.
When my parents visited early on, they too were forced to wear the masks. It was hard to watch; one’s parents should never have to dress as Howard the Duck. Thankfully, two nurses appeared right away and collected the humiliating masks the hospital had been all too happy to provide, saying I’d been cleared for Tuberculosis.
When my parents looked like themselves again (or at least resembled the proper species) they sat beside one another at the foot of my bed, just below the mounted TV monitor. They gave me their full, undivided attention. It was a rare occurrence for me, having grown up with three bigger, older, louder siblings that demanded most of it. And now there were the twenty-two additional offspring. At a family function, one had to do jumping jacks to get in on the chaos, and linear conversation had become a distant memory.
And here we were, just the three of us. In a silent, sterile white room.
They looked vibrant and young, younger than I felt.
My mom handed me a card. I opened it right away and began to read. She’d hand written a message, signed by her and Dad both, to augment the thoughtful and banal sentiment Hallmark had embossed in gold. I was surprised by the earnestness of the message; it was far from the rote reflex that was her MO—saying the perfect thing at just the right time. It was real, and exactly what I would have ordered had mom offered an online service.
My heart was full of fondness; any water under the bridge was inconsequential now. I’d decided years ago that lamenting anything aloud I felt I’d been robbed of growing up would only bring pain during their golden years. Not to mention being an exercise in futility. In her old age, humility (and perhaps getting good with God in the final act) had compelled my mother not to apologize for the alcoholism and dysfunction in our household (too much to ask) but to stop gaslighting. To acknowledge I was not crazy and speak of it openly. I could only imagine what the admission might have meant years earlier, when it could have made a difference.
Nothing mattered now. The current impasse only solidified my deep knowing that they had done a great many things right and deserved to live their final years without regret. Not to mention the twenty-two grandkids worshipped them, and it was not my place to knock anyone off a pedestal by bringing up the past. My parents had driven 2.5 hours from their place in the Tehachapi Mountains, where they watched deer grazing on the lawn daily. The least I could do was extend the grace and compassion I’d found with the medical staff to the two people who’d created me.
We took a walk around the seventh floor, my formerly thuggish, blue-collar Italian father sweetly helping drag my IV along. He’d honed his caretaker skills when roles reversed and it became Mom’s turn to be cared for. On our walk, I shuffled along in stocking feet, and the frumpy hospital gown began to feel like the robes a Buddhist monk might wear. We visited the Starbucks in the courtyard, and my dad helped me empty the flimsy sugar packets my shaky hands could not manage. Sitting there in the peaceful courtyard, surrounded by strangers, reminded me of a night long ago in Piazza San Marco, when we’d done the same. I was working in Paris, and they’d come to visit. We’d taken a side trip to Venice. Sitting there in front of St. Mark’s Cathedral at night, sipping wine, was the first time I’d felt we were three adults with mutual respect for one another.
The visit was healing. I’d striven for gratitude for a long time, even felt it on occasion. But now the word really meant something. It was a blissful state of surrender I found myself in.
There was one area of my life to which I could not extend said patience, and it went by the name ‘Disability.’ There was SDI, or state disability, emergency disability and federal disability (SSDI.) I’d have to apply for all of them, banking on the fact at least one would pan out. Though I’d never believed Pat Robertson and his ilk when they suggested AIDS was payback for immorality, navigating our health care system was clearly cruel and unusual punishment. There were just so many hoops to jump through. MediCal, if I was fortunate enough to be approved, would be retroactive to the date I was admitted, thankfully. But given that it could take up to six weeks for approval for any one of the assistance programs, the applications had to be turned in now. There was the paperwork itself, then there were bank statements and financial breakdowns and copies of bills and pay advices and doctors’ forms to be submitted, and…taxes.
How on Earth would I provide my tax records? Who brought that sort of thing to the hospital?
It was decided that René would break me out of USC Medical Center and drive me the ten or so minutes home to pick up the needed files. Though we were unsure of the actual policy, we thought it best to tell the nurses at the nursing station that we were simply headed to the courtyard between buildings for lunch. Patients were not allowed inside the cafeteria, and though I was not contagious, it seemed like a good policy. Rene’ knew the layout of the place best; it seemed to me eons since I’d seen anything but the 7th floor. Sure, I’d taken periodic jaunts about its periphery, dragging my IV as I shuffled in stocking feet, savoring the view from the occasional window that overlooked the shittiest part of L.A. But Rene’ had crossed every corner of the campus, memorizing the route from one of many parking structures, going through metal detectors with each visit, riding elevators and navigating the maze of corridors when visiting the cafeteria or running applications to and from Rand Schrader clinic for the various assistance programs.
She got us past the staff elevator to the public one. On the ground floor, we smiled at the familiar security guard separating the elevators from the lobby. No need to flash a badge; it was only on re-entry I would have to raise my wristband to confirm my identity; the guard would then scan a list of patients on her clipboard and nod to give me the go-ahead.
I’d brought the street clothes I was wearing the Saturday we first visited the E.R., no inkling my sentence would span weeks. I’d stuffed the balled-up clothes into my nylon shoulder bag advertising the Animation Guild, thumbed them warily inside the bag as we neared yet another security guard stationed at the entrance to the parking structure. The plan had been to change into the street clothes, not to make the whole operation feel more like a bank heist, but to look like a civilian when leaving the joint. To appear incognito to my neighbors when crossing the street and going into my apartment. Rene’ knew there was a restroom, otherwise known as a changing room, on the first floor of the parking structure where she’d parked. The problem was, it turned out to be mere yards from the watchful eyes of the security guard. I could feel beads of sweat forming on my forehead as we neared the gender-specific restrooms flanking a small landing and facing one another.
I wished there was a chicken exit; there would be no way of remaining incognito emerging from the restroom in totally different attire. And time had run out to discuss a change of plans with my sister with the guard station rushing up at us like a freight train; before I could mouth the words ‘no way,’ René hightailed it into the women’s restroom. Sheepishly, I ducked into the corresponding men’s john and bided a few moments pacing. There was no way I could go through with it now. I felt like Billy Hayes in Midnight Express, going through security at the airport with hashish strapped to his midsection. The prospect of Turkish prison loomed imminent and palpable.
“I’ll change in the car,” I whispered between clenched molars as we hustled toward her Kia Optima, having made it past security.
“HEY!” I half expected the guard to yell after us, only to point out I’d dropped a receipt or a stick of chewing gum. We were clearly living an action-adventure film, and the stakes were high. We peeled out of the parking structure, me trying to wriggle into too-tight jeans in the reclined front seat. It felt like sweet freedom picking up speed as we climbed the onramp to Interstate 5 toward Silver Lake. The nausea still lingered, ever present. Still, we savored the wind in our hair, giddy with the prospect of our new life on the lam.
But the thrill was short lived; the freeway was a parking lot.
A half-hour later, what should have been a ten-minute drive delivered us curbside at my apartment complex. I’d never lived in one of those multi-unit honeycomb buildings, so much like indifferent, corporate coffins. My unit stretched from curb to alley along a fertile, green courtyard shared with the neighboring series of bungalows. It was all very L.A.—the open floor plan and the 1930s cottages and the Chinese Pear trees interspersed with swaying palms.
I cast glances around as I hurried toward my door. Truth be told, it was my neighbor Bonnie I was worried about running into. Though she’d become a friend, she was the eyes, ears, nose and throat of El Charro, as our quintessentially Googie complex was known. Bonnie came complete with binoculars, and notes on the habits of everyone in the building. Though I’d long ago decided I was not ashamed, could not control who knew of my diagnosis and who did not, I thought it best not to let prospective employers in on the details of my health record. And keeping Bonnie out of the loop for now seemed like an equally wise policy for self-preservation.
When I got to my door, it was locked. I rifled through my bag; no keys. Dammit. I’d left them in the fruit bowl on my dining room table that foggy, surreal Saturday I’d decided to bite the bullet. It seemed like a dream now, or a distant memory from some other lifetime. As my sister boosted my ass to help me climb into my bedroom window, despite my fatigue, two thoughts occurred to me: 1) This is precisely the sort of hijinks that is introduced in court later as video evidence of Disability fraud, and 2) So much for flying under the radar.
About six weeks after my discharge, I would run into my hot neighbor Jake, from across the courtyard. Think Tarzan with a man bun. And the sweetest disposition a perpetually shirtless hipster could possess.
“You doing alright?” He wanted to know. “Haven’t seen you in a while.” The inquiry was not nosey; it was sweet.
I told him about the meningitis, but not the HIV/AIDS. I told him about the lengthy hospital sentence.
“Yeah, you were skin and bones. I saw you crossing the street from your car one day.” Dammit. Turns out there was one thing I’d forgotten. If the crepey, dehydrated skin did not give me away, or the gaunt jowls, it would have been the two pick lines I’d left dangling from my tattooed forearms.
When I returned from my ‘long lunch,’ scowls were not enough for the nurses. I was reprimanded for staying away so long; they’d come to do my vitals and my blood work, not to mention I was overdue for my next IV.
During my eighteen days at USC Medical Center, I received visits from the ‘social worker’ I’d been promised to assist with aid applications, from a nutritionist and a therapist and a spiritual counselor, from four mysterious men in masks who were introduced as Infectious Disease specialists, (the four-eye exam) and no less than three interns. It was a learning facility, after all. The staff rotated; a different team was responsible for my care each day. And it was I who made sure the medical record had been properly passed on when the changing of the guard took place. To the point of advising a nurse that the saline solution would never sync with the digital IV monitor like an antibiotic would, without inputting the code by hand. This after overhearing as much the night before. By the time I was discharged, I would have my medical degree.
I learned more about HIV than I’d ever bothered to, from viral load to CD4 count to what my aftercare would look like. I’d have hepatitis for the rest of my life, most likely, but the good news was the HIV meds the doctors had in mind also treated the Hepatitis. I learned just enough to be responsible, but not so much as to obsess over all the things that could go wrong with my body.
I’ve never been very good at seeing myself the way others do. I mean that literally. Unless there’s a mirror around, I cannot judge what ‘reads’ in my expression. My hunch is—everything. Though it’s the last thing on the list of qualities I aspire to, I’m obvious. In addition, my eyesight has become so poor that if I find myself staring at someone across the room, it does not occur to me that the fuzzy blob I’m fixated on can see me clear as day. In short, I have a staring problem.
As I sat in one of many semi-comfy upholstered chairs in the hospital lobby, positioned in rows just between the metal detector and the information desk, my eyes locked on a specimen several yards away. I’d taken to hanging out in the lobby whenever I was between IVs and not due for a bloodletting or cavity search. I did it for a change of scenery, a diversion. And to get my people-watching fix. As I sat there in my monk robes and Birkenstock knockoffs, my environs were a mixed bag of ages, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds. In college, my friend Sherry and I would often survey the dive bar or restaurant in which we sat sucking down beer, making up a backstory for each sap that entered. Some were clearly time travelers, as evidenced by their clueless, eclectic attire. Others were axe murderers on break, downing a few shots before returning to a trunk full of severed body parts.
I didn’t see a single serial killer in USC’s lobby that day. But it was fun discerning the relationship between patient and visitor, or throng of visitors. Distinguishing lovers from siblings from in-laws. As always, the rampant poverty saddened me, as it did whenever I visited the DMV or traffic court, the dominance of ethnic folks the government relied on for revenue. “It’s expensive to be poor,” I’d once reflected. “That’s how the man keeps you down.” I was not one to blame people for their circumstances or say they should pull themselves up by the bootstraps. To me, doing so was just another version of the red dress syndrome.
Today, a large group had gathered on a row of chairs off to the side of the lobby, just in front of the tiny Starbucks outlet. Some were latino, others waspy and white as the driven snow. There were young and old, the former darting between legs and repeatedly chasing an errant rubber ball across the tiled floor. The activity livened up the place.
I could not make out a patient among them, which meant one of two things: the visitors were doing rotating shifts due to limited space in the hospital room, or the patient was in surgery. In the absence of a patient, what I did notice was the formidable specimen of a man who towered over those I decided were his in-laws. I could not take my eyes off him—his perfect Adonis-on-steroids physique, his prominent brow and deep-set blue eyes, his strong jaw. A closely cropped military cut told me he was, well, military. Either that, or he’d just stepped off the set of a Terminator reboot. I’d seen him a day before, in the elevator. Who would forget such a sight?
Contrary to my normal state of oblivion, I was hyper aware I was staring, that drool was forming in my slack jaw. I didn’t chastise myself for craning my neck to take in the magnificence—what man or woman or grandmother or dog would do any different?
Since my health had begun to decline, so had my sex drive. My friend Myron, also HIV positive, would later say he’d experienced the same lull. “After all,” he’d explain, “horniness is what got me in this mess!”
Nope. I’d had no stirrings below, nor anything that remotely qualified as desire. If the frumpy, humiliating hospital gown had become a monk’s robes, I’d earned them. I was as celibate as mother Theresa on a desert island.
But here I was, being reminded that the sometimes excruciating ball and chain of lust had not retired, only gone on hiatus. Popular myth posits that the average man thinks about sex hundreds, if not thousands of times per day. René told me once that she had great compassion for men, the fact that they thought with their penises. At the time, I got the distinct impression her partner Jim had let her in on what it was like, and she ‘got it.’ I’d even heard a desperate caller on the radio program Loveline say he was seeking chemical castration to free him from the distraction of lust.
I was not exempt. I was no saint, by any definition. But a sex addict? I hated labels, treatment programs as mea culpas. Whether one is just a red-blooded American male or an addict of anything was ultimately up to him alone, not society. The definition of addiction that resonated with me was the qualifier that the pursuit of a vice had to conflict with daily functioning. This guy in the lobby had me rethinking my preferred definition. I could think of nothing else. I could look at nothing else, though there was plenty of humanity to take in.
In a split second, his head snapped in my direction and his eyes locked with mine. It was as though he’d felt my eyes on him and decided to do something about it. Instead of diverting my gaze or pretending to look at a clock above his head, I smiled. He excused himself from present company and marched across the pewter-flecked linoleum of the lobby to stand before me. I looked up at the statuesque, Godlike creature looming in the stratosphere.
“Howya doin’?’ I managed. Not the best greeting for a deity, but it would have to do.
“Fine. And you?” He offered a vascular, thick-palmed hand. The handshake that followed was strong; there was nothing worse than a limp, sweaty handshake. If I wanted a wet noodle, I’d grab a fistful of linguini. As our hands clasped, I could feel the energy that coursed between them, at once invigorating and restorative.
“What are you in for?” he asked right away, as though my stay really was court-ordered penance.
I looked him square in the eye.
“HIV,” I replied without blinking. “AIDS.”
It was the first time I’d said it. To a stranger, anyway. Oh, I’d told loved ones over the phone, in the gentlest way possible. During their visit, my parents had all but insisted I be the one to call and tell my two other two siblings after René.
My brother had little to say about it, as was his way. When he’d started in IT at Dreamworks Animation, shortly after I’d gotten him an interview there, he entered a period of processing what to make of all the homos in the entertainment industry. He’d attended a meeting in Dreamworks’s conference room, during which a production coordinator put his gayness on display. My brother instantly became a mouthpiece for middle America: “I just don’t know why they have to announce it—rub it in your face…”
With the patience of a twenty-something year-old, the patience this TOFTS fifty year-old can no longer muster, I’d explained, “Did you ever think maybe it’s a protective instinct? That getting it out of the way makes others more comfortable because they know what box to put you in? Making oneself a clown or a novelty is the best way to be in on the joke, not the butt of it.”
My sister Tina, when I told her of my HIV status over the phone from my hospital room, was the first and only one to cry. It may or may not have had something to do with her strong Christian values. Near the end of our phone call, she asked if she could tell her grown children.
“Of course,” I’d said.
I’d long since decided that I had no shame about my new diagnosis. More than that, I could not control who knew and who didn’t, and didn’t care to. I’d never worried about that sort of thing, never protected my reputation or legacy by defending myself against…anything. I knew who I was, and God knew.
After the three siblings were out of the way, I’d made an executive decision to systematically call certain friends from my prison cell. I started with my friend of thirty years, Fran. She was a big Jew, the one with whom I’d attended synagogue. We’d met at a tiny community theater in antelope valley before I’d started college. Being in the theater meant she was a fag hag from way back. She’d been involved in Project Angel Food and had more gay friends than I could count on all my fingers and toes. This would be cake.
In the thirty years I’d known her, things had changed immensely. For the first fifteen years of our friendship, she’d not been paraplegic; for the second, she’d been wheelchair bound. Suffice it to say, she’d made similar phone calls. Come to think of it, I’d visited her in the very same facility, USC Medical Center. She was beyond supportive, as suspected. Her on-the-mark sentiments were not copouts; they came from a long history of developing character through struggle, her own and that of her people.
I proceeded to call several others, always gently laying groundwork before dropping the bomb.
Telling the man in the lobby was the first time I’d announced my new status, my new identity, to a complete stranger. Despite his potentially intimidating package, it felt safe somehow.
“Aaaaah,” he replied, without batting an eye. He neither wiped his hands nor stepped back even an inch.
And then, after a moment, “Is it a new diagnosis?”
I said that it was. The look in his eye said he recognized what an impasse such a revelation represented. What I must have been going through.
“I’ve known quite a few people who’ve towed that line,” he said. “It’s gotta be rough.”
I neither confirmed nor denied. I had no crystal ball to show me what lay ahead.
“What about you?” I asked instead. “Are you visiting someone?”
“My wife,” he replied. “Not exactly visiting. We’re waiting for her to come out of surgery.”
I waited, not wanting to pry.
“It’s a brain tumor.”
His deep-set eyes did not well up. They remained brimming with good humor, with the expanded perspective of one in crisis.
My hands did not go to my heart. They found each other just in front of it, fingertips pressing themselves together. “I’ll pray it turns out all right.”
We talked for twenty minutes or so, and I was glad to provide a diversion for this man, get his mind off of what must have been an anxious purgatory. What he provided me during our short exchange turned out to be way more valuable than something fun to look at.
“Remember ‘anabolic steroids’ if you ever find it hard to keep weight on,” he advised. As suspected, the gay men he’d known were likely fellow bodybuilders.
Over time, my lust had taken a backseat to something I needed infinitely more. At the risk of being overly enthusiastic, in twenty minutes of conversation, he’d redeemed all men in my eyes and become my hero. Of course, it could have been attribution, the other half of my brain told me, considering he looked like a superhero on which it would be impossible to hang anything sinister. I’d learned long ago that looks alone determined whether one was Teflon or Velcro.
I did not see the man again during my stay.
After being discharged, I decided to keep things under one roof and get my ongoing treatment at the Rand Schrader clinic there on campus. I was assigned a doctor, who would become my GP. My first visit was scheduled for exactly a month after my discharge. I was to continue taking six oral antibiotics during the interim.
At the first visit, a month later, a nurse named Melissa took my vitals. I was wearing a heavy overcoat when she put me on the scale. But only after stepping from the scale onto the archaic metal contraption to gauge my height did I reflect, “I probably should take this off,” indicating my jacket. It was a stalled reaction, one that made no sense outside the context of a Dr. Suess book. We broke into peals of laughter and were bonded forever more. The lapse may also have been the reason the doctor later cited ‘cognitive impairment’ on my diagnosis code for MediCal.
My heart rate was a bit fast, Melissa informed me. Then again, she’d gotten me talking about finances, the fact that my MediCal application was still pending. I had no answers from anyone. Not from my MediCal case worker, Miss Doucet, nor any of the three assistance programs I’d applied for.
“We can help you navigate that,” Melissa assured me. “The doctor is going to come in here and make you feel at ease. He has that gift; he’ll calm your nerves.”
Moments later, I was introduced to Dr. Wald, my new physician. He assured me he was very aware of my case, knew my medical record inside and out. Not to mention he was the director of the clinic. I took this to mean I was in the best of hands, of course. And he seemed familiar to me. If nothing else, his wide soulful green eyes. Turns out he’d been one of the Infectious Disease specialists behind the masks when they’d barged in to my room unannounced, like the KGB, and told me to strip naked.
“You’re probably wondering why your first visit is a full month after your discharge,” Dr. Wald began. It was true; I was anxious to start the antiretroviral meds, to bring down my viral load, and bring up my CD4 count.
“It’s because we have to be sure every trace of the meningitis bacteria has been vanquished first. If one or two of them remains in your brain fluid—in one of the cavities or sinuses, when your immune system kicks back in, things could, well—go downhill.”
He paused, searching not for the gentlest words, but apparently the most graphic. “Your immune system will attack them, overreact. Your brain will swell as a result. And when it does, it will have nowhere to go but…out of your skull.”
My hands involuntarily signaled ‘time out.’
“In light of that prospect,” I replied, “I’m glad we waited.” I hadn’t asked for the graphic image; it was clearly TMI.
The goals I’d set for myself included bringing my viral load down to the point of being ‘undetectable.’ Most folks strive for undetectable status in order to go out and get laid; doing so was the last thing on my mind. The second goal was to bring up my CD4 count, the reading most linked to the state of my immune system. According to the doctor, the latter process was a bit slower than the first. I was committed to living a ‘normal, productive life’ once I achieved good numbers, and it really didn’t occur to me that anything would hinder that prospect.
Dr. Wald showed me a laminated menu of pharmaceuticals used to treat HIV, after pulling it from a drawer. It unfolded like an accordion or a medieval scroll. He opted for Descovey and Tivicay, the golden boys. They were tried and true, he said, while the jury was still out on Biktarvi, the newest treatment being relentlessly advertised on TV. I would retrieve them at the pharmacy right there on campus before Ubering home. Eventually, I could move my prescriptions to the neighborhood pharmacy on my corner, but for now it was best to fill them under the same roof as my care. And anyway, my MediCal hadn’t come through yet; USC would allow me to score the drugs with ‘MediCal Pending’ status. Even at today’s appointment, when I’d first gone to the admissions window at the clinic to check in and complete ‘intake’ paperwork, there had been trouble. The woman had found a problem, and sent me across the room to the ‘Financial Services’ window to resolve it. I’d been told that my record would reflect ‘MediCal Pending’ status and I’d be able to attend my first appointment with Dr. Wald. The problem was, it didn’t.
The woman at the Financial Services window was clearly on loan from the DMV. She had all the trademarks—the pursed lips and half-mast eyelids, the needlessly sassy attitude and bad weave. Despite the fact she hated her job, she was able to push a few magic buttons and I was suddenly legal again.
After my appointment with Dr. Wald, being a glutton for punishment, I decided to take a number at Medical Records and wait for them to be printed. Rene’s tiny pad would not do for prosperity. The hour-long wait made sense when I saw that my printed medical record was thicker than the Gideon Bible. Next was trekking across campus to the pharmacy to wait in the long line, otherwise known as the seventh circle of hell. I found myself shifting weight from one foot to the other, more and more convinced I would rather be at home pulling out my fingernails with pliers for relief. I was depleted, nauseated, dizzy. There was something about lines, I knew. Or maybe it was that I was low blood sugar, hadn’t eaten enough. Maybe it was a lingering effect of my earlier Uber ride to get there—all the quick acceleration and complementary braking.
Or maybe, though I did not want to admit it, I was not out of the woods.
Not by a long shot.
While waiting for my Uber home in the outdoor pickup area, I caught sight of him—the man I’d met in the lobby who looked like a military commander/underwear model. I approached him as he waited for a shuttle with a woman in a wheelchair.
“Hey man,” I greeted him. “Good to see you again!”
“Likewise,” he enthused. Then he turned to the woman. “This is my wife, Alma. The one I told you about.”
The woman held out a hand and smiled. She was latina, and somehow not what I would have expected. Older, maybe. Still, even with bandages adorning her head, she was beautiful. Her eyes were wide and omniscient.
“The surgery was a success,” the man announced, beaming.
Though I hardly knew the couple, the news meant the world to me. I felt my eyes moisten.
“Nice to have met you,” the woman said as two nurses began loading her, wheelchair and all, into the shuttle.
“Hey,” I said to the man, in what felt like a stolen moment. “What was the name of that steroid you told me about? I remember it started with an ‘A.’”
“Anabolic,” he reminded me. “It looks like you’ve gained plenty of weight back, though.”
“Thanks for noticing,” I said. “I just wanted to remember the name. You know, just in case.”
A month after my first appointment, I was scheduled to have my ‘labs’ done there at the clinic. Blood work. We discussed them a week later, at my second appointment with Dr. Wald since discharge.
The man was reserved and deliberate by nature. But the excruciatingly long silence, him reviewing notes on a clipboard while measuring words, prepared me for bad news.
“Your numbers are stellar,” he informed me instead. “Your viral load has gone down, in only a month, from the millions to the hundreds.” He stopped short of telling me I should be in the medical books. “As we discussed, the CD4 count is a bit slower to come up, but it’s on track.”
I breathed a sigh of relief.
“You’re on the right meds,” he asserted.
“I’m glad. Especially since the numbers are so good. But I have to be honest,” I pointed to my waistline, “I’m not loving the spare tire.” For my entire adult life, I’d weighed exactly 170. Though the muscle-to-fat ratio had fluctuated a bit, strangely, the number remained the same. In only two months, I found that like most guys my age, I was developing a ‘Dad bod.’ It was new to me.
“Fatty deposits are not a side effect of the meds you’re on,” he assured me. And then his look became the one you gave children when they announced the sky was green. “Have we been eating more recently?”
“Yes, I ‘ve been trying in the hospital and since, to get my appetite back, and my weight back up.” I’d made the mistake of telling him I’d eaten the sugary items first in the hospital—the orange juice and the cookies and the jello and the cereal and bagels with jam in the morning. I’d eventually been able to venture cautiously into savory items like salad and a cold turkey sandwich. But I never, during my entire stay, was able to eat the repulsive combination of both savory and hot. The moment the lid was lifted on my dinner tray, the repulsive hospital food infused itself in the steam, making me want to wretch.
Dr. Wald smiled once I admitted to taking in a lot of carbs, as if to say, “There you go.”
“What about some of the other infections?” I asked. “Is it possible some of them have creeped back in?” I’d felt like Superman on discharge, secretly suspecting the nurses had slipped me morphine. But over time, I was beginning to feel shittier than I had before all of it, when drooling on the arm of my sofa. I described some of the all-too familiar symptoms that had come back.
Dr. Wald’s look, if possible, became even more condescending. “Your blood tests show you’re clear of all your diagnoses. The antibiotics you’re still on in addition to the ARVs are preemptive; it’s very important to keep certain infections at bay that are typical at this stage of an HIV infection. And one is for the meningitis; it must be continued.”
“I’m not a hypochondriac, you know.” I just had to let him know. “The opposite.”
He touched my arm. “You. Have. A. Deadly. Disease,” he enunciated, slow and measured for effect. The message was: give your body a break. Lower your expectations and be patient.
I liked Dr. Wald. And I was lucky to have the director of the facility as my caregiver. I told myself his policy of not alarming easily was a good thing, that he and I shared great faith in the body’s ability to tackle anything we refused to give airtime to. We shared an understanding that the compulsion to define oneself by one’s illness is precisely what made it take deeper root. Still, I sensed the man had never met anyone who knew their body well and listened to it.
Though I’d paid into social security my entire adult life (having started working at fifteen-and-a-half) and felt entitled to Federal Disability, my goal was to return to my primary career in animation as soon as I was well enough. But there was just no way for now. I was still nauseated and weak, not to mention I had two full-time jobs: pursuing assistance programs and navigating our shitty healthcare system while managing my health—getting labs done, attending doctor’s appointments and X-Rays and ultrasounds and picking up prescriptions. All while running a household. I’d often explained, when it was pointed out I had no mouths to feed or shelter to provide, that a single person had to do all the same things to run a household, only without help. Without a partner to shoulder the burden. Without children, otherwise known as tiny slaves.
I relied on The Actor’s Fund for assistance with rent while waiting to hear from MediCal, and state and federal disability (I was rejected immediately by emergency disability, which was exclusively for the undocumented.) Actor’s fund was for not just actors, but anyone whose primary income had been in the entertainment industry. Their mission statement read: The Actor’s fund fosters stability and provides a safety net for performing arts and entertainment professionals over their lifespan.” It had my name all over it; this organization clearly valued the arts as an end in itself, and had an arm devoted solely to those afflicted with AIDS.
While waiting for answers from government agencies, (which entailed hours on hold and never a callback) my policy became to apply for every form of assistance I qualified for, and pursue whichever one had momentum. In other words, whichever one returned my calls. I have yet to hear from Jesse, the housing specialist at APLA, despite hours of preparing documents and filling out applications. I gave him every chance to beg off, saying if I was not a good candidate for HOPWA, the housing assistance program, to just say so. Instead, he strung me along. If I’d wanted to be strung along, I would have started dating again. Whenever I ran into Jesse at the Geffen Center while picking up groceries from the ‘food bank,’ he’d squint at me with a look of vague recognition. I’d hold my tongue.
“I owe you a phone call,” he’d eventually say.
Yeah, you do, I’d think. I’ve left you five messages.
I was being ghosted by Aids Project Los Angeles. I’d been put in touch with them through another support organization called Being Alive. While visiting Being Alive for my initial interview, I was told there was a cosmetic surgeon on the premises who worked on a sliding scale. “Not filler,” the social worker explained. “Just injections that boost your body’s own ability to produce collagen. To treat facial wasting.” Naively, I’d thought the facial wasting, buffalo hump, belly and vascular appearance I’d often spotted at the gym and in one of my own roommates (now dead) was a thing of the past. The side effect of now-obsolete treatments. I told myself the disease only progressed to the point of disfigurement if untreated, or treated too late. Though I did not let it materialize, the passing thought I shouldn’t have waited so long drooling on the couch vaguely occurred to me.
After qualifying for APLA, I was obligated to attend one of several activities on their calendar in order to take advantage of NOLP, or the food bank. I chose yoga.
While spreading out our mats on the hardwood floor, I found myself in conversation with an older gentleman. I felt like the ‘new kid,’ sure that the words ‘just diagnosed’ were stenciled on my back.
He said he came to yoga due to the neuropathy.
Gauging my blank expression, he quickly said, “Oh, you didn’t know? Neuropathy sets in with HIV.”
He seemed all too glad to share the information, to add to the list of things I could potentially worry about. I found myself resisting a club that badly wanted me as a member.
I kept my eye on the red road, refused to stray from my goal of getting my numbers right then living a productive life. But I now knew it would be a long road, not a straight shot.
At my third appointment, Nurse Melissa congratulated me on my numbers. I thought for a moment she might award me a gold star.
“I’m proud of you for advocating for your own health,” she encouraged.
It was true—I’d not missed a single day of taking my meds. I’d gotten my labs done a week beforehand and shown up to each appointment early.
Still, I heard myself say: “Hmmm. If I didn’t advocate for my own health, as you put it, I wouldn’t be here.” I’d finally accepted Rene’s assessment that I really was at death’s door when we went to the E.R.; that her fear I might not make it was a very real one.
“You might be surprised,” Melissa explained, drawing on experience. “Some just don’t care.”
It was easy to picture: a percentage of her patients had thrown in the towel on life, lacked the will to take their meds. Or, judging by some of the characters I’d seen in the lobby when checking in, the ones who mumbled or became downright hostile, demanding meals through the thick glass windows, they descended into mental illness or drug addiction. There was a reason the Biktarvy commercials reminded its target audience to ‘Keep loving who you are.’
The fact I had been diligent in my self-care was evidence, even to me, that I really did want to live. Making a concerted effort in the hospital, and since, to get my appetite back, was the perfect metaphor: I was getting my appetite back for life. Which also meant that before doing so, I must have bottomed out. That there’d been too long a period during which I’d not cared to live.
I stood in line, number in hand. Soon enough I’d be signing my name on a clipboard and moving on to receive my two bags of groceries. I’d then have my choice of two breads and a dessert item. But in the mean time, I found myself withdrawing, trying to be invisible. I had no desire to engage with the gentleman who was camping it up belting show tunes, or the one who looked down and out and was talking to no one in particular at the top of his lungs. I found it all hostile, felt the all-too familiar sensation of my body recoiling. I was just a shy kid from Burbank, after all. Like demons, these characters represented everything distasteful about the less fortunate I’d tuned out over the years. Everything I’d rejected about the gay community. The same way I’d rejected those Freudian textbook projections at the age of eleven. I’d refused to be spoon fed by the gay community; no one was going to tell me what it was to be gay. What I was expected to be. First and foremost, I was human.
I did not regret my stance. I did not regret my avoidance of circuit parties or gays in large numbers, or the fear I’d end up surrounded by them one day in an old folks home for aging fags. But what I now knew was that I had adopted mainstream society’s values, that I had been inculcated by hetero worldviews long before I’d had any inkling I was different. And that fact was precisely what made the ‘gay agenda,’ if there was one, unsavory to me.
What I regretted was my limited compassion.
As I stood there, one of them, I knew I’d somehow become exactly what the jaded man had told me poolside, that it had only been a matter of time. I’d fulfilled what the Freudian book had prophesized in ignorance, that I’d struggle with aging and the inability to procure. And when it came to love, even if I still had it in me to open my heart and take a risk, I would never again feel I was a prize worth a second look. I’d found a way to cement my undesirable status and take myself off the market in one fell swoop.
Oh, I had the ability to extend compassion in plenty of other areas. When I heard traces of judgment from family members regarding my brother, I’d defended him. He’d hit bottom, and the common sentiment was he should get his shit together. “It’s easy to say ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps and take responsibility. It’s easy to say if you’ve never been clinically depressed.” I’d spent two years exploring Mentalism and the law of attraction. The mechanisms by which we create our own realities. I’d discovered my responsibility in every aspect of my life, not just with regard to choices, but the thoughts I gave airtime to, and the attached emotions. I’d become a master of ‘my vibration’ and seen countless illustrations in my own life of how thoughts became things, big or small. I knew my thoughts and feelings had created the life I was living, and was grateful to see the connection. The desirable things I’d manifested and the not so desirable. Still, I’d found my compassion and fiercely defended my brother, remembering what it had been like being depressed.
Why couldn’t I extend this same compassion to my peeps? Let them off the hook, even a little. It suddenly occurred to me: I’d escaped the trap of self-loathing by deflecting it on ‘the bad gays.’
Lord, there was work to do. I was no better, or wiser, or more evolved than anyone else in line for groceries that day. I was one of them.
The Law of Attraction told me in no uncertain terms that I had nothing to offer if I was mired in angst myself. That identifying with suffering or adopting a narrative of any kind only cements it in one’s reality. Perpetuates it. The real work that lay ahead would be finding that elusive balance—living among them, without identifying. Shedding all judgment and embracing compassion, again and again. Coexisting with demons was equivalent to loving oneself; it was not lost on me.
“Hello?” My oldest sister’s voice crackled across miles of desert once she picked up. The connection was not great, but it would do.
A familiar sensation came over me—that of having zero idea what to do when a human actually answered the phone, and not a voicemail recording. After several seconds, it came to me this was the part where I was supposed to talk.
“Hi, Tina!” Tina was a year older than René, and five years older than me.
“Hey—have you talked to Mom and Dad?” I asked, cutting to chase and revealing the only reason for my call. I’d called our parents’ number repeatedly, but no one had answered. It was not like them. It was not karaoke night, and they’d not mentioned having to drive to Bakersfield for any doctors’ appointments, their other pastime of late. Beyond that, it was after business hours; dusk was claiming the sky outside my window, the sun quickly sinking.
“They’re spending the night at Jack and Kris’s down below,” my sister informed me. “Michelle’s wedding was today.”
“Ahhhh.” I’d completely forgotten Dad’s best friend since junior high was giving away his forty-eight year-old daughter today. “Thanks for reminding me.”
We could have ended the conversation there and hung up. We should have ended the call there.
“How are you feeling?” Tina asked instead. It was one of the rare occasions my sister inquired about my life, saw me, so I took the bait. We hadn’t spoken since she’d visited me in the hospital over three months previous.
I gave her the Reader’s Digest version of my health: I was on track numbers-wise, and optimistic. But getting there had not been without bumps in the road. I left it at that. I’d always been hyper-aware of entertainment value, and had a healthy fear of boring my audience. I’d listened to my parents moaning and groaning about their aches and pains over the phone, so contrary to the younger versions of themselves I’d known. It was tiresome, not to mention an exercise in futility; I was not a doctor. More than that, I’d learned not to cement the negative in my experience by speaking about it, giving it voice.
“You know,” Tina followed up, “After you told me about your diagnosis over the phone, I cried for an hour.”
I heard the distant screech of brakes as something in me tried to slow the train down. Why was she telling me this?
“Then I called each one of the kids,” she continued. “I felt I had to tell them, and you said it was OK.”
Her voice was thickening with emotion; I could tell she was in a raw state, still processing the news of my diagnosis.
I’d had a long day, Ubering all over town from doctor’s visits to meetings with social workers to assistance programs. I’d even hustled my cookies downtown to the Disability office rather than devote another day to waiting on hold, only to be told they’d reached call volume and to call back another day. It had become a ritual, something I scheduled into my week. I did all of this while nauseated. As much as I wanted to help my sister through whatever she was going through, it was the wrong moment. I felt my body bracing with resistance; the train tracks were headed toward the brink of some deep chasm.
“When I told Anthony,” (her oldest son had become a minister, and apparently her spiritual advisor) “I said to him, ‘Uncle Nick is smart. I just don’t see why he would choose a high-risk lifestyle without protecting himself.”
“Hold up—“ I cut in. I’d later learn there was a part two to her sentence, meant to redeem the first half. But I didn’t let her get to it. The first half was too loaded not to address. Not that I had a choice in the matter; anger welled up in me from nowhere, a lifetime of it.
“There are too many things wrong with that sentence to ignore,” I said tersely.
I’d now pushed her buttons. “Let me make my point,” she insisted.
I refused. For the first time in my life, I talked over my big sister; she was not going to drive this conversation.
“Anyone who owned a television in the nineties, saw a single episode of Donahue or Oprah or even Jenny Jones, for God’s sake—anyone who was not living under a rock, knows we don’t use those words anymore.”
“Which words? What words?”
“Choice,” I came back. “Lifestyle. It is well known in 2019 that sexual identity is not a choice. It may, like everything else, be a combination of nature and nurture, but it is not a choice. And to reduce one’s entire identity, who one fundamentally is, to a lifestyle is even more offensive to the gay community. You should know that.” I’d grown beyond tired of Middle America needing it gayspplained: being gay was more than what one did in the bedroom; it was a bond shared with long-dead kindred spirits, a worldview and a sensibility and an identity created from the shared experience of marginalization. It was a role one fulfilled in families, in society. A society who would gladly wear the clothes gay men designed, gladly consume the very art and literature and film that redeemed life, while judging, even damning its creators. ‘A Day Without Gays,’ to me, said it all: straight folks wouldn’t last a day without our contributions. I’d grown tired of conservative Republicans dismissing any effort to promote diversity and inclusion as political, to characterize the touting of tolerance as ‘identity politics.’ I knew, above all else, that the critical mass knew better than to employ words like ‘choice’ and ‘lifestyle,’ and that doing so was an aggressive act.
“I guess I’m just ignorant. Or stupid.” My sister concluded, adopting my logic.
“That’s not my point. I respect you, Tina.” I didn’t say that everyone needs a nudge in their growth, that if it was true she didn’t know any better it was due to being so steeped in her milieu of churchgoers that she couldn’t hear herself.
In a single moment, the Zen state I’d found myself in, a bubble that had lasted months, was popped. I’d only later understand why the impasse was so loaded, for both of us.
“You know, this is the first time anyone’s upset me since my diagnosis,” I said, sounding more passive-aggressive than I’d intended.
It was then a familiar pattern would emerge, her in tears, taking on the role of martyr after saying the wrong thing in order to shift responsibility and not be the bad guy.
“I do not judge you,” she said through tears. “God knows I am not perfect. Pregnant at sixteen, three failed marriages. And at fifty-five, I still can’t control my temper…”
Was she really making this about her?
“I have no surplus,” I said simply, my voice flat and measured. “I’d like to help you somehow, but it’s about me right now. I have nothing to give.” The truth was, my sister had never asked about my life in twenty-five years for several reasons. One was the simple fact that she was chatty. Egocentric would be too harsh a word; she was capable of listening under the right circumstances. We’d had some great talks years ago over lunch while both working in Burbank. Me at Disney and her at a soils engineering company right down the street. I’d seen glimpses of the sister I knew from childhood, the one whose love felt unconditional and…simple. But her choices, being pregnant at sixteen for one, morphed into a lifetime of overcompensating for shame, adopting religion as the perfect vehicle for doing so. Still, she’d generously invited me, every year, to spend Christmas Eve on her couch before the big family gathering the following day, lest I spend it alone. It was during those quiet times, sipping coffee in our pajamas, that she’d slowed down and allowed herself so see me. To ask about my life and really listen to the answer.
“I’m sorry I upset you,” Tina said. “My point was that Anthony talked me off the ledge. In all his wisdom, he said ‘maybe Uncle Nick was not irresponsible. Maybe things just happen.’” For a moment, the wisdom astounded me. Even the most rigid teleological view allowed for chaos. For randomness.
“I appreciate that,” I was able to say.
But instead of hanging up, perhaps in an effort to repair things, or maybe out of pride and addiction to drama, we continued to hash things out.
I had not been prepared to feel judged. I’d been surrounded by only support. I’d been lucky. I had not seen this coming, and was unprepared to defend myself. The reason a button was pushed when she tried to make it about her and not me, the real reason my sister had not asked about me in twenty-five years, was the same reason I’d had to remain invisible my entire life. In our own household. With extended family. If one does not accept an aspect of a person, like sexuality, it is not safe to see the whole person. And so he or she must remain invisible. It was a small percentage of me I’d brought to the table at family functions. I recently came across a home video of me in high school. I think of myself as having good posture. But there I was, skulking around and avoiding the camera in an attempt to remain invisible, as if apologizing for being on the planet.
“When I was younger, I had all the patience in the world,” I explained to my sister. “I could debate with people until the cows came home. At my age now, I have no desire to persuade, if it’s even possible. I’ve always relied on faith that my example is enough. That seeing a brother or an uncle who is morally and ethically upstanding would be enough.”
“It is,” my sister assured me.
“Enough to dispel preconceived notions, to shatter myths that being gay means being a sinner.” Now I’d really said it. But I was not done.
“You have to understand,” I tried to explain, “Gay people all experience things similarly, and we can smell this shit a mile away…”
I proceeded to recount the time Pedro, the man she’d recently divorced, had made an attempt to get to know me, early on. It was during the time Obama was campaigning for re-election. “I guess I’ll vote for Obama,” he’d sighed reluctantly. “Despite his socialist policies.” I’d taken a deep breath, and gently offered: “You do realize he doesn’t identify as a socialist...” It was just another inflammatory buzzword. “Okay, but his policies are socialist by definition,” Pedro countered. The reason I did not pursue the conversation further was the same reason he and I would never really bond. I knew that he was from the same conservative stock as everyone in Tina’s world, and that the political avenue was the best way to get to ‘the gay thing.’ I’d heard Pedro and Anthony (Tina’s oldest son and the minister) beating a dead horse into the wee hours on many occasions, dissecting a bible verse for its true intended meaning. I was just not interested in any conversation governed by self-referential, circular logic.
“I think sometimes you’re just too sensitive,” Tina offered.
That was it. If anger had erupted in me before, it now blew my cap. I was a grade-school paper maché volcano at a science fair.
“Sensitive? Do you have any idea how much patience I’ve applied over the years? Observing other people’s comfort zones and being careful what I say in order to not make anyone uncomfortable? Do you realize that to this day I have no earthly idea which of your kids and grandkids know I’m gay and which do not? Because God forbid who I am be an open topic? Do you know how much patience that takes?”
I’d never been given credit in the family for my consideration of others’ boundaries, no matter how silly and unjust. Boundaries that existed for the sheer fact they’d never taken the time to put themselves in my moccasins. And now I was being called out for the very thing on which I prided myself. It was wrong.
My sister and I resolved things as much as could be expected. We confirmed our love for one another, and that’s the most anyone could ask. We agreed maybe we’d talk more later and maybe we wouldn’t. We were in our fifties, after all, and knowing you cannot teach old dogs new tricks, had no expectation of seeing eye-to-eye. But we loved each other.
Part of me knew I was settling, compromising. You took what you could get in life. But another part of me protested: If you really loved me you’d take the opportunity, the gift of my existence in your path. You’d work through your issues and see me. The word ‘accept’ meant little to me over the years, other than being the antonym of reject or deny. And no gay person I knew waited around for denial to lift, for acceptance of what simply was. Most didn’t require approval. In the nineties, Dr. Laura Schlessinger claimed on her radio she had plenty of gay friends, while simultaneously fighting hate crime legislation, gay adoption and marriage equality. Let’s not be so fast and loose with the word ‘friend,’ I’d thought.
After hanging up, I continued replaying the conversation, of course.
My reaction had been magnified for a variety of reasons. But underlying them all was the feeling we could have done this twenty-five years earlier when I’d first come out. That had been the whole reason for the rite of passage. We could have gone head-to-head when I’d written the essay ‘What Being Gay Has Given Me’ and all but shoved it in the face of family members. Or more recently, the time I’d participated in my brother-in-law’s podcast. He was a college speech teacher in the communications department, and made it his goal to rock the world of his young students, turning everything upside down and forcing them to rethink all their presumptions. I’d never been a poster boy, or the token queer, or the gay anything, really. But Jim titled the podcast ‘Conversation With a Queer,’ using sensationalism pique his audience. It was all about juxtaposition. I came off as grounded, balanced, and respectable, which was meant to cause cognitive dissonance in the young listeners who’d presumably internalized the ‘gays-as-sinners’ myth their Christian College proffered. It was the most satisfying discourse I’d ever engaged in. Jim’s questions were thoughtful, critical, and progressive. But more than that, I’d tapped into the reason I was here. Oh, I’d written the occasional short story or film from a gay perspective, even labeled them ‘gay-themed.’ But I had never offered up my life so directly as fodder.
I had no idea if Tina had ever listened to the podcast, despite my sharing the URL with every last family member. And here we were, hashing things out at the worst possible moment, when I was down and out and most in need of support. Talk about kicking a guy when he’s down.
If it sounds like I was feeling sorry for myself, let me reframe things. I was tired. I’d had no inkling my diagnosis would be a call to dig my heels in and become militant. If my purpose truly was enlightening folks to the gay experience, I’d done so gently over the years, working ‘with’ the system. Trying to tell stories that changed peoples’ hearts despite themselves. Trusting my example alone and not relying on persuasion or debate.
The unforeseen pang I felt was the knowing it had all been for naught. The battle was not over, nor would it ever be. I was being called to action, yet again. But was I too old for this shit?
Once I retired my car to the government, I’d become an Uberer. I’d used the service exclusively for about three years, often finding myself in stimulating exchanges with countless drivers during the five or twenty minutes the universe had thrown us together. The momentary intersection of lives often felt synchronistic, like a microcosm of some kind. I’d walk away with something valuable, something I needed to hear, and so would he or she. Only once had the item of value left behind turned out to be my cell phone.
In similar fashion, I’d found Starbucks to be a hub of sorts. Though I preferred Mom ‘n’ Pop joints and had resisted the man at all costs, when an outlet went in on my corner, I just couldn’t resist. It was just so damn…convenient. And there was clearly crack in the coffee that kept one coming back.
Due in large part to the synchronicity factor, but also the sign on my back that read: ‘I’ve done shrooms and acid,’ I often found myself in conversation with unconventional types at my local Starbucks. Healers, psychics, un-medicated schizophrenics. Shortly before my illness and couch had claimed me, I’d been warned by a fellow author with whom I’d chatted several times at Starbucks: ‘You should know, shortly after people meet me, big things tend to happen in their lives.”
“Good things?” I asked.
She didn’t confirm or deny.
I could be accused rightly of many things, but being ‘suggestible’ was not one of them. I knew in my heart I could single-handedly cause a hypnotist to throw in the towel and find a new trade. So recently, when I thought back to this woman’s ominous warning just before my medical crisis began, it startled me.
Another time, a self-professed healer had picked up on some suppressed pain body in my vibration and diagnosed me. Right there between the crumpled sugar packets and stir sticks. The third time she insisted I had emotional work to do, I felt a familiar conflict arise in me: wanting to be open and receptive, to have humility, while also wanting to call her on her bullshit. I’d always considered myself open, perhaps too open, which is precisely how I ended up deeply embroiled in the conversation to begin with. But pride compelled me to be more in-touch than this woman. More intuitive, more lucid, more…spiritual. Didn’t she know that we all have pain? That stating universal truths in a very generalized way keys into insecurities due to the power of suggestion alone? I’d dug in the dirt plenty, developed a metaself and a conscious observer. I’d been lucid about my journey. I knew it was best to accept past narratives one can’t change and move on, rather than picking the scab and remaining mired in them. I’d never skipped a step in my growth.
Still, these two women, however certifiable, had keyed into something. On an energetic level.
Truth be told, I’d even heard myself say: ‘Knowing a thing and having the power to change it are two different things…’
I’d written, on and off over the years, about the elusive interplay between fate, randomness, and free will. But lately, I’d found my characters succumbing to the inescapable tug of destiny. I’d gently suggested to the reader, through juxtaposition, that fate was nothing more than DNA, the deep-seated human instinct to best serve the collective. There was a grand design, and we were all pawns.
But on the other side of the coin, I’d also seen two movies back-to-back that rocked my world: Moonlight and Rocketman. Both spoke to the power of self-creation, in defiance of society’s expectations. The universe’s expectations. From Moonlight I took away the bittersweet sentiment that we self-created, but often by building a thick onionskin to protect our true essence. After doing exactly that, the main character returned to his essence, but in an imperfect way that left room for brokenness. In Rocketman, Elton John spent his life trying to deflect negative messaging. But it got in somehow, became internalized as self-loathing manifested in alcoholism, drug and sex addiction. In the end, he conquered those demons in group and created the life he’d always envisioned for himself.
Four months after my discharge, I sat in Starbucks trying for the gazillionth time to put pen to paper and write about my new life. Not my new oily skin or thinning hair or spare tire or bumpy fingernails, but all of it. The metaphorical death and rebirth I’d seen coming. As much as I’d resisted the idea there was any meaning or significance to be gleaned from my hospital stay, I knew the most valuable meaning was that which I projected onto it. I knew writing was truly cathartic in that we got to write our own endings, or at least our next chapter, discovering the path on which to move forward. Empiricists like to explain dreams away as the random firing of neurons, a necessary function of the brain during sleep. Devoid of spiritual significance or meaning, beyond that which we attach to them. According to this mindset, dreams were messages neither from our subconscious nor the man upstairs. I’d always thought: Why can’t dreams be both—a necessary function of the brain, and also a blank canvass on which to project? Each necessary for survival. To me, this shortsighted, empirical view of dreams was no different than scientists explaining away our prophets with the discovery of ‘The God Gene.’ According to Popular Science, it was a very specific brain chemistry that accounted for numinous or transcendent experiences, the connection of dots. That may have been true, but couldn’t we all agree that such rare brain chemistry was also a necessary gift for our evolution? That those dots waiting to be connected were bread crumbs from the universe? Man, people get so hung up on semantics, I’d often thought.
In my world, it was no different with writing. Whatever story took shape, whatever course the characters took (often feeling to the author as if they had a will of their own) the resultant themes had value as signposts. Still, nothing came that day at Starbucks. Not even a splotch of ink from my crappy ballpoint pen.
I stared listlessly at the cardboard sleeve around my Grande drip. It had settled to the table, askew.
“Nick?” A voice interrupted my writer’s block.
I looked up.
The figure that fast approached was beyond familiar. It was Stephen, the ex-husband of a dear friend. Actually, I had known him first, and he’d introduced me to Brigitte years previous, when she was looking for an illustrator for her children’s book. We’d spent a great deal of time together, even spent the fourth of July together on several occasions, watching every fireworks display in Los Angeles from their ideally located home atop a hill in Silver Lake.
They’d divorced for a myriad of reasons. But I got the sense that underlying all, his ambition (he’d been on the ground floor of digital download) had taken front seat to his relationship. Still, I adored him. He possessed a fascinating combination of right and left-brain sensibilities. Ostensibly, he was a practical, no-nonsense businessman. But he also explored crystals and astral projection and once kissed a guy for seven minutes just to see what all the fuss was about.
“You know,” he offered, soon after learning of my recent diagnosis. “There’s a great podcast you should listen to. I’ll send you the URL.”
“Oh, yeah?” I came back. ”The topic?”
“How AIDS preys on self-love. Or lack of it.”
And then, just as quickly, he was gone.
As I watched Stephen navigate between cars juggling caffeinated beverages for his co-workers, I searched my feelings about the premise of the podcast. It did not feel at all like the firing in the dark of the misguided schizophrenic healers who’d diagnosed me unsolicited. It had the ring, even the sting of truth. But coming from a straight man, it also smacked of projection, attribution. In college, my Christian therapist had posited, “There’s a lot of sadness attached to being gay.” I’d signed up for therapy at Fuller Theological Seminary, simply because I’d seen a flyer pinned to the Illustration Department’s one and only bulletin board saying they worked on a sliding scale. After all, I was a starving student. My therapist was a student herself, as it turns out, banking hours toward her license. She’d not uttered a peep during our sessions, instead discussed them later with a panel of more seasoned faculty. I took her nutshell characterization to mean: Christians think it’s sad to be gay.
Despite any mainstream misapprehensions, I knew the premise Stephen shared to be true. If for no other reason than my staunch belief in the mind/body/spirit connection. Each was inextricable from the others.
Hearing it put in those words, “AIDS preys on lack of self-love,’ stopped me in my tracks for very good reason: I’d made learning to love myself my work for the two years previous to my diagnosis. I’d been devoted to reversing the counter-productive self-messaging to which my peptides were addicted. Using mantras, affirmations, meditations. I knew it was an uphill battle reversing deeply rooted beliefs about oneself, the world, anything. So in meditation, I focused on rewiring simply by clearing the mind. I knew that was when, in pure alpha-wave state, familiar neural pathways really disentangled themselves, making room for new ones.
Daily meditation was one aspect of the ‘upping of my spiritual practice’ I’d employed in an attempt to avoid the knife. I was facing a third excision and reconstructive surgery. This time the squamous cell carcinoma was on my forehead, on full display. The fear of coming out of surgery looking like the elephant man was enough to make me explore alternatives. Countless anecdotal videos online claimed CBD oil alone had caused lesions and tumors to shrink or simply fall out. Clinical studies had documented the miraculous vanquishing of tumors in rats thanks to cannabis, in 72 hours no less. I knew eventually the FDA would acknowledge the research and approve such treatments, despite the pharmaceutical companies fighting tooth and nail, but it would be a long wait. My choice to give CBD a shot was not quackery. Despair, perhaps, but not quackery. I’d tried everything, even asking my dermatologist to sponsor me for a clinical trial in Australia. To no avail.
Daily, I slathered CBD oil on the carcinoma that seemed intent on overtaking every last bit of real estate on my forehead, in a show of manifest destiny. The traces of THC in said oil really ‘enhanced’ my meditations. When not simply clearing my brain of chatter, I’d look into my mind’s eye as I’d once done at an intuition workshop at the Philosophical Research Center. I’d latch onto whatever image floated in intuitively, with the plan to interpret its significance. Most often, the image was that of an eyeball with spidery lashes, clearly the product of light permeating my translucent eyelids. But one day, the eye centered itself, behaving more like a third eye—my mind’s eye. When meditation time was over, I found myself running to the computer from my meditation chamber (the spot where I’d piled pillows on my hardwood floor in front of the stereo.) The trusty interweb told me the third eye was ‘the seat of the soul.’ It correlated with the pineal gland, in the oldest part of the brain; it regulated light and therefore sleep. No wonder I’d had chronic insomnia. And no wonder my third eye was vying for my attention by making cameo appearances in my meditations; it needed healing. The ‘Seat of my soul,’ as the internet Gods put it, needed a little TLC.
If this discovery was banal, the opposite was true when one day the eye morphed again. The carcinoma had recently shed the huge scab that formed repeatedly over time when I didn’t pick it. The purging of the scab led me to believe that like the video testimonials online demonstrated, the CBD oil was working. But the open, pink pit that remained in its place was hard to look at, even without my reading glasses. The orifice seemed to have tentacles. Which, of course, meant that the spidery lashes of the third eye in my meditations would become tentacles. And then a full-blown, writhing hydra from Greek mythology.
This time, the ensuing internet research let me in on the ostensibly horrid creature’s lineage, the ill-foundedness of its conception by Typhon and Echidna. But despite his tortured existence and monstrous appearance, the Hydra was capable of great regeneration. Somehow the fact the redeemable monster was conceived out of spite reminded me I had daddy issues. Nothing I didn’t already know. Though our relationship had come a long way over the years, the early messages from my father had been hard to deflect. Even the ones that simply came through him from society. The messages had been internalized. And all rolled into one the message was, I was unlovable. My peptides had made sure a lifetime of experiences reconfirmed as much.
Oh, I knew better on a good day. When ‘aligned with my source,’ I’d enjoyed a divine inner peace and tranquility. Even as a child, I had an enormous sense of self worth, all things considered. But it was not ego-based. Did not hinge on the superficial, the material or the physical. If it had, I might have become paralyzed noticing I was a shorter-than-average, freckly kid with a gap in his teeth.
During the time I was focused on learning to change the narrative and love myself, a profound-if-cheesy phrase floated to me in meditation: love the skin you’re in. Either that, or I’d left the TV on in another room and was overhearing a commercial for Dove bar soap. What mattered was, it meant something. This was to be my third excision and reconstructive surgery if I couldn’t avoid the knife. My history with skin cancer, along with run-of-the-mill aging, had nudged me along on my spiritual path, weaned me off identifying with my physicality and any currency it once represented. I’d been grateful for the nudge. Not so much for the scar that ran from my nostril to the corner of my mouth and made me look like Al Pacino’s doppelganger, but for the spiritual growth. I felt, perhaps prematurely, that I was leaving the preoccupations of youth, the folly, behind, and becoming the spiritual person I was meant to be.
I’d often blamed by bouts with skin cancer on a ‘misspent youth’ in the sun. I knew I had to quit saying that, to reframe the narrative. I also knew that my immune system was not what it should have been. We got cancer cells every day, cells that went rogue. But our immune systems took care of them before the mutiny was out of hand and became a tumor. I now know that my history of skin cancer, from the first bout, was an early sign my immune system had gone on strike. Oh, I rarely if ever found myself down with a cold. In elementary school, I regularly was awarded for missing not a single day of school during the entire school year. The skin cancer came out of the blue, and I couldn’t help experiencing it as punishment for my vanity, for all those hours lying on the beach or in a tanning bed.
That day at Starbucks, when Stephen echoed what my meditations had been highly recommending—that I learn to love myself, it was startling. Despite working at it, I’d gone too long without self-love, and the subsequent ability to give love effectively.
How on Earth had I reached this point? As one who fancied he’d always maintained and protected the right priorities in life, even when they were unpopular. As one who’d nurtured the mind, body and spirit, keeping everything in check, clearing cobwebs and keeping a ‘clean’ soul. It made no sense.
I’d never had kids.
When strangers asked why, rather than telling them to check their eyeglass prescription and take note of my physique, fashion sense and wittiness, I’d joke: “Ah, well. I have twenty-two nieces and nephews. So the grandkids are all taken care of. I’m off the hook.”
My friend Larry counted the lack of screaming children in his life one of the built-in fringe benefits of being gay. The conspicuous absence of tantrums, sugar highs and timeouts. When adoption became a fad in the gay community, his head nearly exploded for all the cogs turning inside. “Isn’t avoiding diapers and snot precisely what being gay affords you?” he cried.
I never went quite that far. I simply thought that although men did have the drive to protect, to provide and to love tenderly, the paternal instinct was not as pressing as the maternal one. I also held the belief that we were not all here for the same reason. We were not all spawned to procreate, especially now that humankind couldn’t even sustain its overpopulation. They say it takes a village, and I saw it in all my single friends—the important roles they fulfilled without babies attached to their hips, and the resultant ability to think straight.
I’d long been aware that my creations were my babies. That my sense of purpose was fulfilled not by wiping snot or changing stinky diapers, but by contributing with my art—the images I created and the stories I told. I knew one’s fulfillment hinged on a sense of purpose, and that purpose hinged on contributing to something greater than oneself—the tribe, the whole of humanity, the proliferation of consciousness. Or, if you were a Trekkie, the Collective. Quitting Disney after eleven years to make my own films was a step toward fulfilling that calling. I knew that touching hearts through narrative, not theory or didactics, was what changed the world. My version of an early mid-life crisis was attending New York Film Academy to learn the craft. I then proceeded to do what every last book on filmmaking says not to do—spent my own money on my first film. But it was meant to be my reel—my calling card—not to mention I would never forget what I learned ‘in the trenches.’ Also in defiance of the advice of most filmmaking books, my early film shoots involved horses, a baby, and no less than sixty extras.
My short films did well in the festival circuit, winning awards and even garnering distribution. What they didn’t do was make me rich. Granted, that was not the goal, nor was fame or fortune. I’d simply envisioned a modest career like that of Pedro Almadovar, backed by some financier who believed in my message enough to float me from one humble but impactful movie to the next, regardless of box office. It’s said that you can’t make an independent film in Hollywood without a rich uncle, and I found that to be true. Oh, not because I was lacking in well-to-do uncles; I had one. Strangely, he was exactly my age and going through a similar midlife crisis. He’d attended New York Film Academy along with me, and watched from Chicago as I tried to parlay my early films into a first feature. He stepped in, and with the bravado only a Chicago Italian can exhibit, declared himself savior; he bragged he could get my financing long before the loser executive producer I had teamed up with.
But the bravado turned to despair with production only weeks away; it became painfully clear my uncle’s ego had spoken out of turn. My Art Department and I had been working away furiously in a rented warehouse, and we’d already shot the ‘period sequences’ on location. And so it was Uncle Joe found himself across the table from a diamond dealer in Milano, Italy, sweating profusely. It was all too shady for me, and I insisted on being bought out of the film with co-director credits. But Joe was in bed with the mob; there was no turning back. He finished up the film with another director, and it was comical to see later that many of the roles had been filled with ‘actors’ better suited for the Sopranos. Who knew mafiosos undertook vanity projects?
At one point, I realized my screenplay credits on SAG/IMDB films with distribution constituted a writing resume. Some folks came to L.A. on a two-year or five-year plan, pounding the pavement by typing away in coffee shops. Throwing around words like story arc and Hero’s Journey should some eavesdropping patron happen to be a producer. All with the goal of becoming a Tinseltown screenwriter. I’d never held that as an objective; I’d simply written screenplays as an auteur—in order to make them. But I’d stumbled into a resume those coffee shop hacks would have killed or died for. And so it was I put my lifelong love of writing on the front burner. After all, storytelling was storytelling, wasn’t it? Though film was a feeling medium and literature was more cerebral by nature, I could still make my difference in the world. And the more solitary pursuit appealed to me—that of pecking away on a laptop at Starbucks, with no horses or babies or extras to contend with. And most importantly, no executive producers name Scarface Lenny or Ice Pick Willie.
Apparently mortality had come knocking; creative nonfiction essays and memoirs poured out of me. I performed them live at spoken word events, and many won awards and were included in anthologies. I penned the YA Fantasy novel I’d fantasized about writing for my niece when she was a toddler. Never mind that she was now thirty-something with two kids of her own. It landed with a publisher and I followed up with its sequel, knowing that in the YA genre trilogies were the way to go. On a good day, I felt blessed knowing I’d put my stories out in the world, felt honored and grateful for every stellar review, every friend or family member or stranger who read my work.
Still, things began to feel futile. The truth is, I’d hoped to reach a wider readership, to sign with a major. My temples went gray waiting for my trilogy to become the next Harry Potter. I knew Paul Coelho had self-published and sold The Alchemist out of his van initially, and that eventually things snowballed to the point it was translated into more languages than the Bible. I had not self-published; I was with a small imprint. But after the week during which the publisher provided a publicist, the launches and the readings and the social media campaigns were on me—the guest blog spots and talk radio interviews. I enjoyed any opportunity to talk about my book series; the characters were my children, the worlds I’d created a refuge to which I relished returning time and again. But eventually the disappointment seeped in; the false promises from high school friends added up—to get my book on the shelves of libraries, on school district reading lists. Oh, I believed in the work, and its potential. But folks had a limited attention span, I knew. I found myself saying I’d chosen the wrong moment to become an author; no one fucking read anymore.
I’d heard it said that starving artists who hung in there were often delusional. I resisted the characterization, knowing in my heart my work had merit—artistic integrity and literary value. I knew my purpose had merit. No one had more faith than I, or more perseverance. For twenty years after leaving security behind at The Mouse, I’d paid my bills by teaching at my Alma Mater, Art Center, as an adjunct professor. I designed my life to accommodate the creative process—carved out room for inspiration and the freedom to execute projects. At the same time, I told the universe the moment I got a sign that my calling lay elsewhere—feeding the hungry in a soup kitchen or proselytizing in the trenches, I’d drop everything and heed it. The moment I got a sign the pursuit of my dreams was not a contribution, but a selfish, misguided act, I’d become Mother Fucking Theresa.
The sign never came.
One day, however, I looked around and saw that in twenty years my efforts had not changed the world. I’d devoted myself to elevating hearts and minds, but rarely felt the reward of it. Rarely felt the circuit had been completed. I had no children, no legacy, nothing to show for two decades of devotion. Maybe I was delusional.
Like everyone on the brink of half-a-century, I started thinking about legacy. I was staring mortality in the face, feeling the example I’d set for my nieces and nephews had fallen short, that my creations were indeed what I’d always said—diversions from what really matters. Surrogates for true connection. My broken heart had prevented me from finding love, and telling myself not everyone is here for the same reasons had been nothing more than rationalization. I found myself thinking more and more about legacy—leaving something behind. Only half aware the Vincent Van Gogh model of being appreciated post-mortem drove me to it, I began self-publishing all my works that had not found publication. Compiling collections and ordering boxes full of bound books, for posterity. For my nonexistent children and grandchildren. I found myself clearing my browser’s cache of anything potentially incriminating that might put me on a government watch list, making sure to always wear clean underwear.
It’s funny how the most seemingly admirable values one grows turn out, in the end, to be mere justifications for who one fundamentally is. I’d convinced myself that one must be complete on one’s own, with or without a relationship. That one has more to offer a relationship or family if one is complete. I’d even repeated the adage the moment you stop looking, love appears.
I hadn’t thrown in the towel on love, really. I’d just decided to be okay without it. Until or unless it was the real deal, anyway. Still, part of me knew that to keep my heart open, I’d have to keep taking risks and choosing to care for others. I’d seen a documentary about a man who’d found himself near suicidal after a breakup, and credited the dog he adopted with his survival. I knew that being loved, feeling loved, was only ever the product of giving love. Still, I never got that dog. Always a good reason: my apartment doesn’t allow pets, it wouldn’t be fair to the dog for me to have just one, or to keep anything with eyes and a soul cooped up in an apartment while working. My sister René and I had talked about a ‘dog-sharing’ model, like timeshare only less creepy. But we never made it happen.
Put simply, I went too long without love.
I knew full well, being a Deepak Chopra junkie, that both were required for immune health; the neuroendocrine system thrived on love and touch. I was sorely lacking in the most crucial peptides, neurotransmitter chemicals and hormones. Despite its clinical ring and distinct lack of Hallmark sentimentality, I knew the aforementioned to be true the way I knew Trump was an orange asshole.
I never felt depressed. I prided myself on being ever content. And yet, in one of my short stories, an aging character had the epiphany that he’d become the proverbial frog in boiling water—although he prided himself on the art of being content, he’d simply forgotten: he once aspired to be happy. Blissfully, blindly happy.
It had been freeing to leave vanity behind. I didn’t look like I’d been run over by a steamroller, exactly, but after my surgeries things weren’t in exactly the same place as before. I really did feel I was returning to my spiritual essence, despite what the vessel had become, what it would continue to become.
At the same time, I told myself life begins at fifty, and viewed the landmark as the beginning of a new chapter. I spoke of rebirth, felt it coming. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but everything in my world confirmed the impending metamorphosis. Under the commendable guise of living more simply, of devaluing the material and living minimally, I gave up my car. That, and the fact my waiver had run out and it was not cost efficient to invest the money it would take to get the clunker to pass its smog check. My surgeries, paid for out-of-pocket, had put me in the poorhouse. Giving up one’s car is nothing less than sacrilege in L.A. Still, I framed my new Ubering lifestyle in a positive way, as downsizing. In a true illustration of the Law of Attraction, the universe listened to me. You want to downsize? To live minimally? Here’s more of that. In a matter of weeks, my bike was stolen only yards away from where I stood in front of 7-11, its chain snipped while my view of it was blocked by a delivery truck, my laptop took a dive due to a program called Parallels my brother had kindly installed on it, and my IPad was swiped from atop the urinal at House of Pies in the twenty seconds it took for me to realize I’d left it there. More than a few times, I found myself dodging the vehicles of the distracted drivers to whom I’d become a magnet. The message from the universe was, ‘be careful what you ask for.’
Only later, after my discharge from the hospital, did I realize the same pattern had repeated. I’d told myself my new spiritual self would be perfectly content moving on, changing form. I wasn’t particularly interested in pain or suffering, but I was okay with death. I could accept that I’d done all there was to do here, and considered it a spiritually mature outlook. What I learned being at death’s door was indulging such thoughts is akin to dancing with the devil; the prospect of death is not to be taken lightly.
There was a reason people lived in a constant state of existential terror.
During and after my hospitalization, I forced myself to eat. With the slow return of my appetite came my zest for life. I knew now I really did want to live. It seemed ironic, even senseless, that two years of learning to love myself still culminated in a brush with death, and the new life I emerged into would be far from easy. Still, in a way, the work had served a purpose; the new version of me was ready for battle. I’d somehow had the foresight to prime myself for the biggest fight of my life: the fight for my life.
I knew now that the downsizing, the universe taking away nearly all at my request, was nothing more than self-deprivation. And if it was true my thoughts and feelings created my reality, I’d allowed all to be taken away as punishment for not being loveable. I’d never defended myself in life, but this bad habit meant that one-by-one every thing that had mattered to me would go up in a puff of smoke. For twenty years I’d taught at my alma mater, Art Center, from which I’d graduated with distinction. I’d even founded their Entertainment Arts track. But when the skin cancer had to be operated on, the medical emergency forced me to hand my classes over to a colleague early in the term. No one else would have provided a stellar replacement for him or herself, but I chose to painstakingly train this person to teach the classes that had run for years and resulted in most of the work in grad portfolios and on grad walls. Still, the inconvenience proved too much for the new department chair, and the ambitious animation colleague I’d trusted with my classes made her move.
Still, I did not defend myself, nor protect the status I’d attained in life. After all, weren’t those things ego-driven? Weren’t they fleeting and superficial? Even knowing status did not bring happiness, I couldn’t help but experience all the loss as negative feedback. It all reminded me I was a horrible monster, no better than the hydra. That I was unlovable. For that reason, for too long a time, my only relationships involved casual, impersonal sex.
Maybe I had grown careless.
Silly me, the metaphorical rebirth I’d seen coming was not metaphorical at all. Naively, I’d failed to realize that rebirth requires death. I’d given up everything material, but I was not ready to give up life itself, if for no other reason than the fear of death I now knew I had. It was a healthy fear.
One night, when things seemed touch and go, my sister René thought I might not make it. She’d been lying on her sofa, drifting in and out of a lucid, dreamlike state resembling sleep. I was in the hospital, and she’d gone home for the night. Somehow, in her half-slumber, my voice came to her, the one she’d always described as a rich, warm baritone. She pictured my tattoos, emblazoned on her dream as abstract motifs. In the visitation, my voice told her this was not the end of my story. She’d woken up, refused to accept that this was the way it would end.
She relayed the dream to me once I was well. I thought of my sister, the one who’d been there for me throughout my ordeal, throughout life, as a soul mate. I knew our souls had conversed on some other plane, the one where dreams dwell. I saw that she’d never given up on me. She loved me, and that meant I was loveable. I was more than some horrible monster with tentacles and daddy issues.
I’m not sure why, but my sister’s description of her fragmented dream brought me back to an equally dreamlike, fuzzy memory. In the mid-seventies, the two black labs my siblings and I grew up with had found themselves knocked up at the same time. This may have had something to do with our recent trip to the desert to visit our grandparents and their unneutered bachelor Labrador mix, Shadrack. One morning, Tootsie, the first of the two black Labs to deliver, began acting strangely. She tore out the lining under my parents’ king sized bed, creating a nest of sorts.
Mom knew what this meant. She sent my best frenemy Slobert and I out to find a nice cardboard box in which to put the stuffing, one that could double as an impromptu maternity ward. By the time we came back with a sturdy box from Bars TV and Appliances, half the puppies had slid out of Tootsie, covered in slime. She was exhausted from licking off all the afterbirth. The final puppy, the sole golden lab among a litter of black ones, was left gasping for air, mouth agape, encased as it was in mucous. Tootsie’s attention was on the other puppies, on anything but ingesting more placenta.
Tears shot into my sister’s eyes. Valiantly, using her finger as a hook, she cleared the air passage of the helpless pup.
Maybe instinct had taken over; the universe had instructed Tootsie to let the runt suffocate. But my sister stepped in and did what Tootsie had been too lazy or distracted to do. Our male Guinae pig had once eaten its own offspring. Again, instinct. And again, an indelible image that I’d carry with me. I was the youngest in my brood. Only years later would I realize I identified with that gasping puppy and those baby Guinea pigs-turned-hors d’ouvres.
It’s funny how the images that stick with us throughout life come to define us. Either that, or they impacted us in the first place as haunting harbingers of what was to come, time being nothing more than a construct of man, after all. Our souls knew no linear time, existed independent of it. And so they provided glimpses. Breadcrumbs.
My life was not a tragedy. It had always been a story of triumph, of overcoming. If I identified with the runt of that litter, I would come to see myself as the ugly duckling born to the wrong brood and destined for greatness. How’s that for a mixed metaphor? I’d continue to experience knee-jerk, instinctual aggression from the world for simply being an anomaly. For being different. I would turn my uniqueness into a super power. But I’d also come to appreciate those who advocated life, in defiance of instinct. Who elevated it beyond our base drives. Those rare individuals who defied the status quo, who countered entropy, were indeed enlightened. And my sister was on the cutting edge. She’d reminded me I was an overcomer. A victor and not a martyr. She’d reminded me my story was an inspiration, not a tragedy. And none of that would change in the final chapter.
I’d continue to grapple with challenges, to be baffled by all the different ways my body could betray me. I’d fracture my tibia walking—yes, walking—due to bone softening that was a side effect of the meds that were saving my life. I’d continue having to sort through which manifestations were a product of inflammation, of having ravaged the flora in my intestines by being pumped with antibiotics, which were simply a product of HIV, and which were side effects of the antiretroviral meds.
But I was alive.
I was determined to restore my quality of life, knowing things would never be exactly the same.
But the ways in which it differed—all challenges in life—were there to strengthen our resolve. To up our gratitude. I eyed the long, bumpy road ahead with eager anticipation. It was not unlike the gritty, eroded alleyway that stretched between Burbank Public Library and the suburban San Fernando Valley home of my childhood. The day I’d slammed shut the cover of “Preventing Homosexuality,” rejecting its ill-founded propaganda, I’d made a promise to myself. I was not about to go back on it now.
And anyway, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.